ORONO — The University of Southern Maine is considering a name change to reflect its recent growth after the ruthless elimination of tenured and non-tenured faculty and established programs several years ago. In light of increased enrollment – not least, among out-of-state students – one can hardly fault USM President Glenn Cummings and others for wanting to rebrand USM and further broaden its appeal.

Rebranding has become ever more common among colleges and universities wishing “to take it to the next level,” as they say in athletics. Any college or university whose name implies a regional or community focus, such as the University of Southern Maine or the University of Maine at Fort Kent, is automatically at a disadvantage vis-à-vis an institution without such restrictions, like the University of Maine.

To their credit, Cummings and others appreciate that any name change is a complex, lengthy and costly process, involving the consultation of many stakeholders: alumni, current students, faculty, staff, business and community leaders, legislators and, of course, University of Maine System trustees.

However, I wonder if any of these constituents are even remotely familiar with the evolution of campus names since the UMaine System was established in 1968. When the University of Maine celebrated its centennial in 1965, it was an autonomous institution. Despite the distance between them, Orono was in charge of both the University of Maine School of Law in Portland and the commuter campus, also in Portland.

As Portland and surrounding areas grew in population, wealth and political and economic power from the late 1960s on, it made sense to create a wholly separate campus there. Indeed, what became USM wound up with campuses in Gorham and Lewiston as well.

The UMaine System’s final configuration came about after many public and private discussions, legislative commissions and reports from outside consultants. Had more of those consultants’ recommendations been followed, there might have been an efficient and comprehensive system, including Orono and USM, the five small university campuses, the Maine Community College System (the former vocational-technical institutes) and Maine Maritime Academy. But this did not happen.

If the final configuration gave Orono the rhetorical designation as the flagship campus, the designation was often in name only. Meanwhile, what eventually became America’s five smallest universities – the Augusta, Farmington, Fort Kent, Machias and Presque Isle campuses – were primarily schools for teacher preparation. They lacked the number of students, faculty and programs to qualify for university status. But anemic efforts to drop “university” from their titles failed. Once such a designation is granted, it is virtually impossible, for political reasons, to remove it.

Tellingly, Orono’s lead status was marginalized by the most influential advisory commission, chaired by Bowdoin College President James Coles. Why the head of this prestigious and wealthy college would feel compelled to marginalize UMaine remains a mystery. But then Bowdoin had a history of attempting to undermine UMaine, beginning with trying to usurp Orono’s designation as one of the country’s first state land grant institutions following the 1862 Morrill Act and continuing in 1907 with failed efforts to prevent Orono from awarding bachelor of arts degrees in addition to bachelor of science degrees.

This has been a problem for Orono ever since. How should the flagship be treated as compared with the other six campuses in terms of funding, quality of faculty and facilities, and other matters?

When the University of Maine hired me in 1986, the official name was changing from “the University of Maine at Orono” back to “the University of Maine.” Many Mainers still call it “UMO,” however, reinforcing the notion that it’s merely one of seven equal campuses.

For some influential Mainers, dumbing down to the lowest common denominator is precisely the way Maine public higher education should be. As system trustee Karl Turner made clear in a 2015 Maine Sunday Telegram op-ed, every campus is the same – whatever that means. God forbid that Orono should be the flagship in more than name only. God forbid that such elitism should prevail.

Meanwhile, the UMaine System’s efforts in recent years to create “One University” harken back to its “Super-U” designation in its early days. Then, as now, the term’s meaning was not exactly clear. Meeting with a well-paid outside consultant a couple of years ago, I found it obvious that this well-meaning person was in the dark about where her discussions with faculty about “One University” might lead. So were we.

Consequently, USM President Cummings and others would be wise to familiarize themselves with the history of UMaine System renaming efforts and choose a name (please, not “the University of Maine Portland”) that reflects a long-term vision, not just short-term returns.

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