Transforming USM: Just what do they mean by ‘Metropolitan University,’ and what will the change cost?

University of Southern Maine buildings can be seen over Interstate 295 in Portland. (BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

University of Southern Maine buildings can be seen over Interstate 295 in Portland. (BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

Over at least the last year or so, University of Maine System trustees have pushed each of their seven universities to define its identity or specialty.

For the University of Southern Maine, that conversation has centered around the establishment — or, perhaps re-establishment — of the school as “Maine’s Metropolitan University.”

The term has evoked imagery of places like Temple University, a bustling urban campus so intertwined in the Philadelphia cityscape you could drive through it without discerning it from the bustle of the surrounding City of Brotherly Love if not for the school flags on the street lights.

So that’s what you might picture when you hear the term “metropolitan university.”

But what does it actually mean?

The phrase isn’t without baggage in southern Maine, where the administration’s excitement about branding the school with it have coincided with deep budget cuts and job losses.

USM President David Flanagan (BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

USM President David Flanagan (BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

This fall, USM has eliminated 51 faculty positions, five programs and dozens of staff positions in response to what interim President David Flanagan has called a $16 million budget shortfall for the coming fiscal year 2016.

For some of those unsatisfied with the current situation, the push toward the “metropolitan university” vision is at best a diversion from the real problems facing the school and at worst a cold cannibalizing of some of USM’s treasured and traditional programs.

But Flanagan and other supporters of the vision argue the “metropolitan university” is, in contrast, the university’s best path toward overcoming its current fiscal crisis and avoiding the elimination of any more treasured and traditional programs.

Whether the “metropolitan university” is a distraction or a saving grace, it makes sense to take a look at what they mean by that — as well as how USM would become one and what it would cost.

Today, a 32-member Metropolitan University Steering Group, chaired by Richard Barringer of USM’s Muskie School of Public Service, released its report on that very topic.

Their finding? USM must adapt or die.

report quotation

I spoke to Barringer today about the report, which is titled “Forging a New Identity.” He said two characteristics define a so-called metropolitan university above all others: community engagement and experiential learning.

Functionally, that’s a situation where students are out in the city working alongside business leaders, municipal officials and nonprofit activists every day to solve real problems through hands-on research and innovation.

“My personal experience in 25 years here is that that’s how students learn best,” Barringer said. “Maine people are hands-on people, and we’re a Maine university.”

So while metropolitan universities of today can trace their histories back to municipally founded urban schools like Louisville and Cincinnati, they’re more about the educational model being used by the universities than about the fact that they’re physically located someplace metropolitan.

Barbara Holland (BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

Barbara Holland (BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

It just so happens that there are more business leaders, municipal officials and nonprofit activists to intermingle with in cities, so that’s where these schools thrive.

Barbara Holland, a veteran educator who has researched and led metropolitan universities and edits the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities journal, is visiting USM today and tomorrow for a series of events to talk about the concept.

“As metropolitan universities, we’re not seeing our cities at laboratories, we’re seeing the cities — and all of their strengths and weaknesses and opportunities — as collaborators,” Holland told me this afternoon.

In Maine, which only has one city by population center standards used in just about every other state, USM would be the only public school that could pull this off. It has campuses in the state’s largest city of Portland, as well as nearby Gorham and the second largest city of Lewiston.

Other city-based schools which have enthusiastically embraced the metropolitan university approach, Barringer said, have found the type of success and stability which would be very appealing to a USM community reeling from successive years of deep budget cuts.

“Every institution I know in these tough economic times is clarifying and focusing on their missions,” Holland said. “In lean times, you can’t be everything to everybody.”

Said Barringer: “It’s timely [and] it has always proven to strengthen especially urban universities. Strengthen their teaching, strengthen their learning, strengthen their research, strengthen their enrollment, strengthen their giving.”

USM Prof. Lucy Benedict and a chemistry student testing new product for Biovation, Inc., in the type of project the university would emphasize under its new Metropolitan University vision. (Photo from the report "Forging a New Identity")

USM Prof. Lucy Benedict and a chemistry student testing new product for Biovation, Inc., in the type of project the university would emphasize under its new Metropolitan University vision. (Photo from the report “Forging a New Identity”)

While Barringer is the first to acknowledge that many USM classes and programs are already interweaving with community partners for mutually beneficial advancements, those efforts have not been coordinated or part of a systemic, universitywide strategy.

Part of what’s needed is a self-image adjustment, the steering group’s report suggests.

Previously, according to the committee’s report, USM has referred to itself as “a combination of Orono/South and Cambridge/North,” or even “Bowdoin on the cheap,” almost apologetic descriptions that seem to accept second-choice status. And perhaps more importantly, those descriptions associated USM with a variety of land-grant or private liberal arts schools, when it should have been comparing itself favorably to the aforementioned Temple.

The committee’s report also gets into how USM could achieve this goal of a new identity, steps that include hiring new leadership — including a new president (Flanagan is only holding the position on a temporary basis) — with this focus in mind.

The report calls for the addition of a new leadership position focused solely the metropolitan university strategy at a cost of $150,000 per year, which gets us to the question of how much this plan will cost.

The short answer? $925,000 per year after $125,000 in one-time startup investments.

USM Gorham campus (Photo courtesy of USM)

USM Gorham campus (Photo courtesy of USM)

For now, we’ll overlook that adding nearly $1 million in new expenses may be tough to sell at a school eliminating dozens of jobs because of a $16 million budget shortfall — even with the pitch that these changes could ultimately drive back up enrollment and revenues.

That $925,000 includes $250,000 to fund student involvement projects in the community, $150,000 to develop teaching and learning partnerships, $100,000 in professional development opportunities for faculty and $50,000 in community outreach, among other new annual expenditures.

The proposal also includes a goal of achieving the Carnegie Foundation’s Elective Community Engagement Classification by 2020, a designation which would signal that the university has made the big time in the world of experiential, community-involved schools.

The steering group’s report will be given much more scrutiny over the coming weeks as university stakeholders seek to get a look at USM’s potential future. I tried to hit some of the highlights and context in this post, but you can read the full report below.

Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.