Craig Calhoun, writing in “Knowledge Matters, The Public Mission of the Research University,” reflects on the current upheaval in higher education with financial shortfalls, new pressures for accountability, and intense competition for students and faculty — from a variety of educational alternatives to our traditional base of strength.

Calhoun affirms: “Determining how universities can and should respond to their current predicament demands a firmer sense of mission. Simply trying to defend the status quo ante is hardly a strategy likely to strengthen universities. Such a defense will not work and the status quo often deserves critique.”

In fact, many of our citizens have lost confidence in the critical role that the public research university plays in preparing their children for successful careers, for enhancing quality of life, for spurring imagination through the arts and humanities, for creating new knowledge to fuel new technologies and businesses, and for continuing to partner with the state to create jobs and promote economic development. This has often been accompanied by a misunderstanding of the diverse roles and impact of faculty, a limited understanding of the operational challenges we face and the efficiencies we achieve. Taken together, this has sometimes led to a loss of a sense of value and impact of the public good inherent to the mission of the public university — and all of higher education.

That public good is clearly evident in Maine’s Sustainability Solutions Initiative led by the University of Maine’s Senator George J. Mitchell Center. This $20 million, five-year initiative, funded, in part, by the National Science Foundation Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, also known as EPSCoR, mobilizes more than a dozen teams of researchers and students from many of Maine’s universities and colleges to work with communities, industry, government, nonprofits and other stakeholders on pressing concerns at the intersection of economic, social and environmental issues. Participating institutions and individuals are “rolling up their sleeves” to create a brighter future for Maine on urgent issues related to town planning, forest management, fisheries, water quality and other concerns.

SSI’s unprecedented statewide network — six campuses of the University of Maine System, as well as Bates, Bowdoin, Colby, Unity and the University of New England — is actively forging innovative partnerships to address some of our most complex and multifaceted challenges, ranging from strengthening energy security to helping communities balance economic development and environmental protection. In the process, SSI is providing many students with hands-on opportunities to help solve real-world problems — and acquire new skills to become tomorrow’s leaders. And because there is no “one size fits all” solution to the challenges facing Maine, SSI has empowered teams of faculty and students to work with local partners to address issues in their own backyard.

SSI’s approach to collaboration can be illustrated by a tidal energy development project in Cobscook Bay. Here, faculty and UMaine students in SSI and the Maine Tidal Power Initiative are collaborating with stakeholders, including fishermen, energy developers such as Ocean Renewable Power Company, state and federal agencies involved in tidal power regulation, and many others who care about the region’s future. SSI team members began by listening to stakeholders’ ideas and concerns regarding the potential challenges and opportunities of tidal energy development, and asking: “Are there ways that SSI can add value in the search for improved community, economic and environmental outcomes?”

In response to stakeholder input, the SSI team organized community meetings where concerns and questions were raised, such as the potential effect of tidal energy on fisheries. Tapping into the experience and knowledge of local fishermen and many others, research activities were coordinated to fill information gaps. By cooperating with diverse members of the community and regulators to gather, analyze and distribute information regarding the potential for tidal energy development, SSI is helping improve the process by which decisions are made.

From Aroostook County to York County, SSI teams are working on projects to help communities better plan for the future they want. Another team is collaborating with Wabanaki basketmakers and federal, state and tribal agencies on guidelines to address the potential invasion of the emerald ash borer, a forest pest that could destroy the state’s “basket trees,” along with livelihoods and a time-honored art. These efforts have garnered attention from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, as well as international researchers who have traveled to Maine to learn from SSI’s innovative work.

Complementing the on-the-ground experience and know-how of local citizens, business leaders and representatives of government, SSI brings expertise in the economic, social, cultural and environmental issues that are central to Maine’s past, present and future. This combination of sound scientific information and stakeholder knowledge and experience supports more effective decision-making and better outcomes than either approach would produce on its own.

Clearly, the most obvious and, to some, most important role of higher education for Maine will always be to prepare students for jobs and careers that will ensure them a financially sound future. Initiatives like SSI, in addition to providing critical research expertise to facilitate economic growth statewide, provides students with hands-on experience with problem-solving collaborations that prepare them to be the strong, resilient leaders needed for Maine’s future. Such is the public good we can all receive from higher education in Maine.

David D. Hart is research director of the Sustainability Solutions Initiative, director of the Senator George J. Mitchell Center and a professor in the School of Biology and Ecology at the University of Maine. Paul W. Ferguson is president of the University of Maine.