Wonderful and exciting things are happening at the University of Southern Maine as it continues to rediscover its roots as an institute of higher education founded in an urban environment, with a mission to serve the surrounding community and its residents.

As we reorganize to meet the needs of the southern Maine region, it has become clear that there are many who are unaware of or unclear about what it means for USM to be Maine’s Metropolitan University.

Let’s begin there. While many colleges and universities are “engaged” with the community, a true metropolitan university takes that engagement to a deeper, more meaningful level. It forms partnerships with its local cities, utilizing its academic strengths and resources in order to identify, address and respond to the needs of the community and solve local problems in ways that benefit both the region and the university.

A metropolitan university brings a focused effort to leveraging the institution’s intellectual capital to solve local problems through a strong emphasis on collaboration. In a nutshell, at USM we’re creating a great city while at the same time creating a great university for our students, faculty and staff.

One of the first steps in accomplishing this is to take a good look at the broader view in order to determine where we’ve been, where we now are and where we are headed in the future. We find we are actually returning to our roots, but with a clearer sense of purpose.

One dramatic example of this effort is the collaboration between the School of Education and Human Development and our local public school systems. Our faculty is working closely with the superintendents of the Portland, Lewiston/Auburn and Westbrook school systems around an identified need for developing urban teachers.

It’s no secret that the steady influx of immigrants, asylees and refugees has resulted in significant changes in our cities’ demographics.

Consequently, the composition of the student bodies has changed radically over the past several years. Teachers, however, haven’t been trained to deal with the issues brought on by this quickly changing demographic.

There is a great need to train our teachers in areas of race, diversity, poverty and English for speakers of other languages. In response to this need, USM is developing new programs around urban teacher development that will benefit both pre-service teachers – those who are learning to be teachers – and experienced teachers already in the classroom, through professional development opportunities. The superintendents articulated their need, and USM responded, partnering with the school systems to plan how best to address these issues.

To be clear, it’s not the university’s mission to step in and fix things. The key concept here is mutuality. There is a concerted focus on the benefit to both parties: simultaneously expanding the students’ learning while addressing and resolving community issues. By emphasizing the role both parties play – the mutuality piece – we’re not only helping to transform the city by helping to solve its problems, we’re also transforming ourselves.

Thus, Maine’s Metropolitan University aspiration is not merely a “rebranding” of USM, as some have claimed; it is transforming USM. As a recent internal report stated, USM is evolving “from a campus culture of individualism in choice and performance to one of collaboration and focus that ensures fulfillment of the university’s mission based on internal and external engagement.”

A metropolitan university is a “steward of place,” functioning both as learner and teacher and joining with locally vested partners to not only address issues, but also to explore opportunities, thereby fulfilling its mission as an institution of higher learning in a way that has meaning to its neighbors.

Place matters. The communities in which we are located – campuses in Greater Portland and Lewiston/Auburn – are the main population centers and major metropolitan areas of Maine.

We are dedicated to serving the needs of these communities – to being good stewards of our communities and to renewing our true role as Maine’s Metropolitan University.