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The Universal Notebook: Ready for USM as 'Metro University'?

Opinion

The Universal Notebook: Ready for USM as 'Metro University'?

When I attended the University of Southern Maine in the 1970s, the university was in the midst of merging the University of Maine in Portland (UMP) with Gorham State College (formerly Gorham Academy, Gorham Normal School and Gorham State Teachers College) to form the University of Maine at Portland-Gorham (UMPG or PoGo U.)

When my father briefly attended in the 1940s, it was called Portland Junior College. The name was changed to USM in 1978, the year the university turned 100.

My point here is simply that USM has been a shape-shifting, name-changing institution most of its life, so the fact that the current administration wants to re-invent it as a so-called metropolitan university is not all that surprising.

What is surprising is that the Metro U agenda seems to have taken students and faculty pretty much by surprise. Rather than having been arrived at in an orderly fashion through a strategic planning process, the Metro U idea seems to have gone off like a bomb in the midst of budget season. It came amid announcements of disputed budget shortfalls, faculty layoffs and program cuts.

USM faculty, staff and students managed to express their displeasure enough that university administrators have temporarily backed off some of the sweeping layoffs and cuts, but the way forward to a metropolitan university is sure to be painful and messy given the unfortunate way it began.

The Metro U push seems to be a branding exercise aimed at attracting more federal funding based on the Obama administration's obsession with Outcome-Based Education, the current fad sweeping through higher education.

In 1995, Dr. Paige E. Mulhollan, a founding member of the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities and former president of Wright State University, defined a metropolitan university as "an institution that accepts all of higher education's traditional values in teaching, research, and professional service, but takes upon itself the additional responsibility of providing leadership to its metropolitan region by using its human and financial resources to improve the region's quality of life.”

Sounds pretty much like USM, doesn’t it? USM is a nexus of educational and economic life in Southern Maine. If you’ve lost track of someone over the years, there’s a good chance you will find them going back to school part time at USM to make a career change.

In the context of a focus on aligning university programs with local needs, the proposal to eliminate New England Studies, Geosciences and Recreation & Leisure programs made no sense at all. Maine is Vacationland. Portland is the center of Maine’s creative economy. People engaged in the fine arts, practical arts and performing arts are what make the metro hum. If anything, USM should be adding a hotel and restaurant management school if it’s serious about serving the local job market.

Back when I was in school, none of my friends thought very much about what we were going to do to make a living. We were in school to get educated, not trained. We wouldn’t have majored in philosophy if we had been as job-focused as young people are today. Or, come to think of it, maybe we would have. The philosophy majors of my years became state mental health officials, town administrators, professional musicians, journalists, advertising and media executives, and self-taught IT guys. Thoughtful, creative self-starters one and all.

USM is already pretty much what it should be – a traditional residential liberal arts and teachers college on the Gorham campus and with an urban commuter campus in Portland featuring undergrad, graduate and professional programs. The university educates teachers, business leaders, lawyers, public policy makers and nurses.

Unfortunately, the University of Maine System missed the big boat years ago when it ceded the lucrative health-care field – educating doctors, dentists, pharmacists, physician’s assistants and dental hygienists – to the private University of New England.

This huge health-care oversight – and the sudden Metro U bombshell – point to what is really wrong with USM and the University of Maine System as a whole: a stunning lack of foresight and a failure to adequately fund higher education.

What’s needed is more visionary leadership and more money.