Over the past generation, the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine has built a reputation as a reliable wellspring of learning and teaching, and as a source of credible information for citizens and decision-makers alike.

Today, it is seen to be in crisis as a result of USM’s continuing budget shortfalls and the departure of a number of its faculty.

Twenty-five years ago, I asked Sen. Edmund Muskie to give his name to USM’s newly combined graduate program in public policy and management and Human Services Development Institute.

As was his way, Muskie replied that he had no desire to see his name in big letters, but if we believed this might inspire the next generation of leaders for Maine and the nation, he would be honored.

The following year, the University of Maine System Board of Trustees created the school “to enrich and enhance public service in Maine and the nation … to help prepare the next generation of leaders in government … and to address critical issues of policymaking and governance facing the state, the nation, and the world.”

It was, I believe, Thomas Jefferson who observed that every institution needs a thoroughgoing shake-up every 25 years or so – so here we are! Today, as a generation of faculty retire and the university finds itself upon hard times, the occasion is ripe to re-examine the reason for the school’s being, its mission and, most importantly, its place in a state and world that have changed dramatically since 1990.

Such a re-examination began in summer 2013, when an External Review Committee of community members, school alumni and policy leaders carefully studied the school and the university. They concluded that “the school remains a unique and irreplaceable asset for Maine,” even as it finds itself at a crossroad respecting both its mission and relationship with USM.

The committee concluded: “Two possible futures lie ahead for the Muskie School. One is to continue business as usual – making short-term decisions to get by year-to-year with smaller and smaller budgets. The other is to position the School for growth – growth of students, growth of research, growth in reputation and influence.”

Their report provided a roadmap for growth, with detailed recommendations that would enable the school to:

Lead the public dialogue: Become the go-to place for citizens, elected officials, media members and students to learn about and discuss current affairs.

Create an interdisciplinary learning environment: Bring the professional programs of the graduate schools of business, social work, education, health, community planning and public policy together into an integrated whole, to provide the interdisciplinary skills desired by employers and students alike.

Grow the student body: Serve students both throughout Maine and beyond, of all ages and employment situations, through new online and onsite academic offerings.

Strengthen the faculty: Strategically add “practice and research faculty” who are engaged at the cutting edge of current public policy approaches, and increase faculty involvement with students and research efforts.

Grow sponsored research: Consolidate all sponsored research in the College of Management and Human Services into a new Muskie Research Institute, give it administrative flexibility and autonomy and allow it to use indirect fee revenues to reinvest in growth.

Empower the dean: Create the authority, resources and accountability within the dean’s office to carry out these reforms.

These major recommendations incorporate 23 specific actions to be taken. In the 14 months since this report was delivered to the university, few, if any, have been implemented. This, I believe, is due in largest part to institutional inertia and the diversion of energy and talent to the fiscal crisis facing USM.

Unless and until this budgetary matter is put behind us and USM is directed toward a sustainable fiscal path, I believe no substantive progress on redefining USM and the Muskie School is possible.

There is now hope in this regard for the first time in years, and the prospect on the horizon of USM assuming the identity and reality of “Maine’s Metropolitan University.” From its very beginnings, the Muskie School has been the USM practitioner par excellence of the metropolitan university idea, partnering with citizens and agencies across Maine and the nation to strengthen our society, economy, environment and civic engagement.

As the Muskie School approaches today’s challenges, there is a proud tradition of accomplishment upon which to draw, and a recent and compelling blueprint for it to move ahead in parlous times.

Together with its community partners, it is time for Muskie students, faculty, researchers and administrators to redefine the school’s vision in a new century and to re-establish its abiding purpose and distinguished reputation – and, as Sen. Muskie said in 1990, to make a real difference in the lives of the people of Maine and of the nation.