ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine is in the midst of a transition. There is a new president, a relatively new provost and a new lead financial officer at a time when millions of dollars are being cut from the budget.
UMaine President Sue Hunter, who was appointed in June, spoke recently with the Bangor Daily News about her goals, the challenges the university faces and the role the university should play in the state’s economic future.
Some of Hunter’s responses have been lightly edited for length.
Q. The University of Maine System chancellor has said that each university must come up with a distinctive role within the system. What is the University of Maine’s distinctive role?
A. We were founded almost 150 years ago. We are the land grant university of the state, so by definition, we have a tripartite mission: teaching, research — we couple that with economic development — and public service or outreach.
We are meant to be totally statewide, and the one element of our campus that I think is easiest for people to grasp in terms of the statewide mission is University of Maine Cooperative Extension, because cooperative extension is always embedded on a land grant campus. They are embedded in every county and their mission, historically, has been to take the knowledge developed at the university and basically port it out to the people of the state.
Q. The university has named certain programs signature and emerging. Could you explain what that means?
A. This is the fourth year of the Blue Sky strategic plan that was developed initially when Dr. [Paul] Ferguson was here as president. An element of that plan was to identify our signature and emerging areas.
Let me emphasize that “area” doesn’t refer to specific academic programs, I’m not talking about the history department or the English department, we’re talking about broader areas, in a sense, almost umbrellas that cover areas of study.
The signature areas are those areas that we as a university feel, and can support, as having national and international prominence.
Our emerging areas are those areas that, with additional focus and investment and careful alignment of faculty to the area, will gain national or international prominence.
Q. How will this be used going forward as you make decisions about programming?
A. It will be a guide in terms of prioritizing funding and expenditure and hiring as we move forward. It won’t be the only thing. It’s not that clear cut. Nothing could be that clear cut.
Q. Do you think the university is in a position to invest in these emerging areas?
A. We all know that there are serious fiscal budgetary challenges within the state, but a university is always evolving. Every university evolves, and as we make decisions going forward, the fact that … we collectively as a community have identified areas that are important … that sets the stage for making investments.
Q. You said that you don’t know yet how much the university is going to be looking at cutting, but how are you going to be approaching that process?
A. It’s true I don’t have a number yet. I have nothing to share numerically.
All seven of the universities in the University of Maine System, working with our colleagues at the system, realize that we are going to do our budgeting process earlier than before.
Q. As you go forward, do you have a strategy for how you are going to figure out how to make those cuts?
A. We’ll be discussing that. We’re not at the point of rolling anything out yet, but there will be broad campus involvement.
It will not be a secret. We will go forward in a public fashion.
Q. You are going to be president for two years. What can you accomplish in that time?
A. I was pretty clear the day I was announced, that there will be a focus certainly on enrollment management and maintaining our growth of enrollment. And especially, we’re looking at growing our out-of-state enrollment, and we’ve been successful the last two years. A piece of that is just looking at the high school demographics in Maine.
It broadens out our campus-based community if a number of students have come from somewhere else. It just makes it a more vibrant, exciting campus.
Q. You mentioned enrollment management, what can a university such as the University of Maine do to improve upon that?
A. It’s being analytic. It’s looking at population trends. It’s looking at where we should have people on the road, going to college fairs.
If we go back and look at a high school, how many students have come from there to the University of Maine? How do we improve that number? Are there other areas that we should be marketing specific programs to?
If you live in the middle of Kansas and want to study marine sciences, you’re probably going to a coast. Jeff Hecker is fond of saying, and he’s a very fine clinical psychologist, he says between the middle of Kansas and here, there’s probably 4,000 psychology programs. So would we go all that way to market psychology? Maybe not. But forestry? Marine sciences?
You know, part of it is where you have the best chance of frankly rising on somebody’s radar screen because what you’re offering is unique and is what they’re looking for. And it’s matching that up.
Q. What do you think are the biggest challenges that the university is facing?
A. Broadly, it’s our fiscal challenge. But I’d like to back up. I think the biggest challenge in the state is educational attainment.
A part of it is when you look at educational attainment in New England … the rate of high school diploma earning in Maine is one of the highest in the country. We’re right up there with the top states. But then when you look at the associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees or graduate degrees, we are much lower. And even more significantly, we are much lower than the rest of New England.
When you look at economic development, the infusion of capital, influx of business, development of new business, it requires an educated workforce. It’s not that we don’t have good people, but they don’t have the skill set. And when you look around, you realize that the rest of New England is far ahead of us in those educational attainment metrics. That to me is important.
Q. Why is that the case in Maine?
A. I think some of it is historic. The thing I haven’t done is to look at the map and look at southern Maine versus the rest of Maine. What I’m giving you is an average. Certainly large parts of Maine are relatively rural. And historically, we’ve had people that basically go to high school, graduate very effectively and intend to go out in the woods, work in the mills, maybe haul lobster traps, which is wonderful, except it isn’t setting the stage for, basically, a 21st century workforce.
And so when things are depressed in terms of mills and forestry — yes, we still have forestry, it’s a major industry, but it’s much more mechanized. It takes far fewer people. We need more people to go and figure out that that’s probably not enough education. That they need to go on to get more educated to be part of a high-tech approach to all of those industries.
I see us as central to this.