This report outlines the southern Maine community’s concerns over the role of the University of Southern Maine (USM) as a vital component in the future of the region and the entire state.
From December 1999 through April 2000, the USM Board of Visitors sponsored a comprehensive community outreach project to assess the region’s needs and expectations regarding the University. Consultants engaged by the Board interviewed 11 regional business and civic leaders and facilitated 15 focus groups involving 180 stakeholders representing a wide range of interests.
The message from this project was clear: Because the futures of the southern Maine region and USM are integrally linked, USM must become one of the top-ranked public, regional, comprehensive universities in the United States in terms of the breadth, the quality, and the accessibility of its academic programs.
The citizens of this region have told us in no uncertain terms that they expect USM to:
- have both a clear direction and perform multiple roles,
- provide solid programs in science, technology, and professional fields and in the liberal arts, and,
- be a high quality, first-choice institution while at the same time be a source of educational opportunity for those citizens taking the first step toward lifelong learning.
Based on those expectations, the USM Board of Visitors recommends that USM:
• aggressively pursue the goal of becoming, by 2010, one of the top-ranked public, regional, comprehensive universities in the nation, and be so recognized by its peers;
• significantly expand academic programs needed regionally in science and technology as well as in graduate and professional fields, and pursue a “targeted areas of excellence strategy” so that programs tied directly to regional priorities can become nationally competitive;
• enhance its broad range of liberal arts and humanities programs central to a solid undergraduate education and the intellectual needs of the region’s learners;
• place the broad and continually changing needs of lifelong learners within the region at the core of the design and delivery of academic programs, develop a comprehensive network of institutional partnerships and collaborations, and make creative use of electronic learning opportunities;
• clarify, focus, and assure the affordability of programs and services designed to encourage University attendance, persistence, and lifelong learning; and,
• gain more financial support from the state and from the business/industrial community commensurate with USM’s mission and share of statewide enrollment.
A Southern Maine Imperative II
The University of Southern Maine Board of Visitors conducted a series of interviews and focus groups with business and civic leaders in southern Maine, assessed implementation by the University of the six recommendations in our 2000 Southern Maine Imperative, and based on our findings from both activities, prepared a new set of recommendations directed at the University, state government, the UMS Board of Trustees, and the southern Maine community.
Our interviews and focus groups produced three key findings.
USM is vital to the southern Maine community. A common theme from community leaders is this: A healthy USM leads to a healthy region, which in turn leads to a healthy state. Community leaders told us that USM must play a key role in the economy of the region both serving and driving the economy, helping to create jobs, and supplying qualified employees.
Community leaders identified four major changes in the regional context in which USM works: (1) the Community College System; (2) the increasing pressure to constrain state spending and lower taxes; (3) the emergence of a knowledge-based, technology-driven economy that places expensive demands on the University’s education, research, and technical assistance programs, and (4) the region’s increasing diversity in terms of age, ethnic background, and culture.
Community leaders want USM to be the “fuel in the engine of economic and societal growth.” USM must provide a solid core of learning for all students and at the same time build distinctive areas of excellence in specific areas, especially selected graduate programs.
Our primary conclusion from these findings is clear: While USM is on the mark toward meeting community expectations, the University still needs to focus, to be known for excellence in some definable way, and to make difficult choices regarding the use of scarce resources.
Report Card: On Implementation of Recommendations from 2000
Implementation of the six key recommendations in our 2000 Southern Maine Imperative was assessed. The report cards below indicate both progress and challenges. The most serious challenge is the financial situation facing the University. USM has been affected far more than the rest of the University of Maine System by the growth of the Community College System.
1. Vision: USM as a top-ranked, regional, comprehensive university. While there are encouraging signs of progress toward realizing this vision, a credible means of measuring the University against peer institutions continues to be a challenge.
2. Academic programs in science and technology as well as graduate and professional fields. The University has been extremely responsive to the needs of the community during a period of intense fiscal stress, but more needs to be done in supporting distinctive programs that have the potential to attract outstanding students as well as private contributions and grant support.
3. A broad range of liberal arts and humanities programs central to a solid undergraduate education. Solid progress has been made in demonstrating USM’s commitment to a liberal arts foundation, especially through a major redesign of the general education curriculum.
4. Lifelong learning, institutional partnerships, and online educational opportunities. Substantial progress has been made in each of the three areas; a major determinant of success in the future will be the University’s willingness and capacity to adapt to the pace of economic, demographic, and workplace change, which has implications for how learning is designed and delivered.
5. The affordability of programs and the availability of services designed to encourage attendance, persistence, and lifelong learning. While student financial aid has been increased somewhat, it remains a problem in recruiting and retaining students. The University’s retention and graduation rates continue to remain well below national norms and, therefore, are a major problem.
6. Financial situation. Severe financial constraints are the most serious obstacle to fulfilling the community’s expectations for USM. While alumni, the business community, and private citizens have increased their financial support—primarily for capital investments—the state is not fulfilling its obligation for operating support and programmatic investments, nor has the Board of Trustees altered the historic but outmoded way that the state appropriation is allocated to the units of the System.
Based on our updated review of the expectations of business and civic leaders in southern Maine and our assessment of the implementation of the six recommendations from 2000, the following eight new recommendations are made to the University, state government, the UMS Board of Trustees, and the southern Maine community.
1. Continue to make consistent progress toward becoming a university of national distinction among peer institutions whose mission is to contribute to the economic development, social health, and cultural vitality of their regions. Identify and benchmark to comparable universities beginning in the 2008-09 academic year.
2. Secure sustainable financing consistent with the community’s vision and USM’s mission.
• The UMS Board of Trustees must adjust the funding mechanism for the distribution of state appropriation to university campuses so that USM’s share matches its share of System-wide baccalaureate and graduate enrollment and its overall role in the state’s economic success.
• USM’s faculty, staff, and administrative leadership must continue to seek creative ways to make maximum use of scarce academic as well as management and support resources.
• The southern Maine business and civic community must broaden corporate and individual support for USM through annual giving and scholarship support.
3. Invest in program areas of potential distinction that demonstrate the quality and value of a USM education.
4. Sustain and grow applied R&D programs relevant to the needs of southern Maine business and industrial clusters and appropriate and sustainable for an institution with USM’s mission, size, and resource base.
5. Fully implement the redesigned general education curriculum.
6. Prepare graduates to succeed in a global, technology-based economy through both general education and specialized degree programs.
7. Improve student success and persistence in completing undergraduate degrees so that USM is comparable to peer institutions.
8. Good progress in growth in noncredit programming, online education, and regional partnerships has been made. Continue the good progress in these areas, especially in expanding online education.