This year’s Opening Breakfast at the University of Southern Maine was the first chance for many faculty and staff members to meet their new provost. The greeting they got from Dr. Georita Frierson was filled with both personality and policy ideas.
They all came together at Abromson Community Education Center in Portland on August 23. The annual event allows co-workers to reconnect ahead of the new school year. Frierson began her job three months earlier during the summer lull on campus.
After catching up over coffee and muffins, the crowd moved into Hannaford Hall for the formal part of the morning. Frierson’s speech opened with a round of “thank yous” to all the people who helped get her settled at USM. But a sudden change of topic left her as surprised as the audience.
Frierson paused briefly then let out a laugh. She explained that her notes had stuck together, causing her to skip a page of her speech. She laughed again and this time the crowd joined her. Upon resuming her speech, she promised to carry out her duties with the same transparency and good humor that she used to correct her mistake.
“Listening and observing are critical components of building healthy and helpful relationships,” Frierson said. “I want people to know that the provost’s office is accessible and available to help you. Please never think that I am too busy to hear from you or to have a coffee break with you regarding Academic Affairs.”
Frierson also brings her own priorities into the Academic Affairs conversation. She wants to encourage research and program development, supported by honest self-assessment and evaluation. She characterized her approach as student focused and faculty centered.
President Jacqueline Edmondson also laid out an ambitious set of goals in her speech. The budget remains tight. She asked everyone to do their part to help by observing the five R’s of fiscal responsibility: recruitment, retention, research, revenue, and reputation.
Those principles even applied to the event at hand. In past years, the Opening Breakfast was held on the indoor track at Costello Sports Complex in Gorham. The move to Portland this year was a cost-saving measure.
The camaraderie of the breakfast shouldn’t be a once-a-year occasion, as Edmondson sees it. She views the University as a community where colleagues support each other. That could mean attending an art exhibition, a musical recital, or a sporting event.
Edmondson specifically congratulated anyone beginning their first year of employment for choosing to join the USM community. They were easy to identify by the special ribbons on their name tags. Among them was Dr. Nichole Fournier, newly hired assistant professor of Anthropology.
“I’m surrounded by new colleagues here,” Fournier said. “We’ve been going through our new faculty orientation and getting the most wonderful welcome to the University. I think we’re all excited to be here.”
Along with the new faculty for the fall semester, Edmondson also highlighted the new facilities and programs. The Portland Commons dorm complex and McGoldrick Center for Career and Student Success are open after years of construction. New degrees in special education, project and supply chain management, and industrial engineering are now available.
Edmondson pointed to several indicators that efforts to improve the University are headed in the right direction. First to second term retention reached its highest point (89.2%) in 11 years. And the first to second year retention rate of 67.4% is up by 3% after hitting a low point during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Edmondson announced that she’ll play a more direct role in classroom participation this year. She and her chief of staff, Gina Guadagnino, will co-teach an undergraduate course on civic and community engagement.
“Our students give me hope and inspiration for the future,” Edmondson said, “and I look forward to meeting even more of them in the year ahead.”
Philanthropy plays a big part in many of the opportunities available to students on campus. That was the subject of the speech delivered by USM Foundation President and CEO Ainsley Wallace. She thanked everyone who gave to the Great University fundraising campaign. Its planners gave themselves five years to reach a goal of $46 million. They did it in three years.
“At its heart, fundraising is all about authentic relationships,” Wallace said. “In this time of building, our relationships with those who believe in this place and what it stands for will be more important than ever.”
A major focus of the Great University Campaign was to raise money to build a new Center for the Arts in Portland. Construction began this month on a lot bounded by Brighton Avenue and Beford Street.
The Foundation’s fundraising was also crucial in the development of the newly completed McGoldrick Center. Wallace invited the campus community to attend a ceremony set for September 27 to celebrate its opening. But with classes set to begin on August 28, students will get there first, as Dean of Students Rodney Mondor was quick to point out.
“I’m actually looking forward to the students’ ‘aha’ when they come into campus and see how the campus has transformed from even just last year,” Mondor said. “Coming back after COVID, we’re making a new campus and a new energy. This Opening Breakfast is always a great, exciting time to get it going.”