Last week, many in our community were surprised to learn that Glenn Cummings had decided to step down as president of the University of Southern Maine. That so many of us who have devoted our lives and careers to this beloved institution were surprised was, well, surprising. When Glenn joined USM, everyone’s favorite pastime was to count the number of presidents, and provosts, that each of us had served under. Glenn promised something different, and our community and state is the better for it.

The knock against Glenn, when his presidency began, was that he is “too nice” for higher ed., and certainly “too nice” for USM, and that reputation unfortunately persists. Glenn’s warmth is real, and it mattered for an institution that had lost people, confidence, and community support. USM had lost its way, and he knew that for USM to chart a new course, he had to build trust with the community, our staff and faculty, and most importantly our students.

When Glenn became president, he had to make some very difficult decisions regarding the university’s future. He was a strong enough leader that he didn’t make unpopular decisions simply to prove to outside audiences that he had the mettle to “take on USM.” He is humble enough to know that through dialogue, he could learn from others. And when the future of the institution was at stake, he made calls that were unpopular but necessary. That is how through one of the most serious crises of the century, USM is fiscally sound and positioned for growth.

But more than the building projects and the rejuvenated morale, Glenn changed the culture of USM. As someone steeped in the academy, when Glenn pushed the notion of a service promise, “Student Focused Every Day,” I found it somewhat naïve. But what it did was reorient the mindset of everyone who works here. Behind it, he, along with his provost, developed a serious and innovative academic vision that focuses our faculty upon a new way of teaching and learning: a commitment to a “culture of inquiry,” community service, research, and the social mobility of our students.

In much the same way that Portland’s dynamism has helped fuel the renaissance in Lewiston, Westbrook, and Biddeford, Glenn understands how this region gives all Mainers a perch in the new economy, close to their grandparents and the way of life that they treasure. Glenn understood the degree to which USM has been an underdeveloped resource and he has worked relentlessly so that it answers the workforce, demographic, and inclusivity challenges that loom over the state. Under his leadership, Glenn is making USM a first-choice destination for “old Mainers” and “new,” from all parts of the country and the world. USM’s momentum is real but not irreversible.

No leader is indispensable; when Glenn announced his decision internally, he made sure that we all knew that. I do not write out of personal fealty or in any official capacity, but I know I speak for many who love this university and call upon President Cummings to reconsider his decision, and I would invite our political and civic leaders who understand the importance of higher education in a state like ours to join me. Short of his return, we need to ensure that his successor shares his values and most importantly his vision for USM: bold ambition, inclusion, fiscal prudence, academic excellence, and above all, student success and well-being.

Perhaps the most revealing story I can share about Glenn took place before I even knew him. In the midst of the most pivotal moment of his presidential search, a single mom from our neighborhood hailed me while on a walk: “You have to hire Glenn Cummings!” Glenn was her former teacher and at a pivotal moment in his professional life, he told her that he was a finalist while checking in upon her. Glenn was, and is, so successful because he understands Maine, and his networks in the state encompass the powerful and the ordinary alike, and when he reaches out to the former, he can do so with genuine authenticity. It is a rare quality and he will be sorely missed.


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