As Joan Ferrini-Mundy readies for the start of her first school year as University of Maine’s president, her colleagues hope their new leader’s math- and science-centric background will usher students into a professional landscape that increasingly demands those skills.
“I am as excited as our football team would be if Tom Brady came to play for the Black Bears,” said Habib Dagher, professor of civil and structural engineering and executive director of the university’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center.
Ferrini-Mundy, 63, formerly the chief operating officer of the National Science Foundation, was selected in March to succeed Susan Hunter as the university’s 21st president.
As faculty and students begin arriving on campus, the New Hampshire native said she’s going to continue soaking up as much information from as many people as possible. Listening, rather than directing, is her most important task at hand, she said.
“A lot of what I’ll be doing is learning where people are most proud of their work, where we already have strengths, how we want to keep growing and learning from those,” Ferrini-Mundy said last week in her office. “I want to do as good of a job as I can.”
While it’s still too early to pinpoint concrete areas she wants to build upon, Ferrini-Mundy said she’s interested in continuing to make higher education more widely available. That begins by strengthening partnerships with K-12 schools across the state to begin priming students from a young age for higher education, she said.
“It just seems like a natural, systemic way of making sure we’re all working in complementary directions,” she said.
Ferrini-Mundy has devoted the bulk of her career to championing mathematics and science. She began as a math teacher at a college-preparatory school in the Granite State, before eventually transitioning to collegiate-level instructor and researcher at Michigan State and the University of New Hampshire. She moved from Michigan to Virginia in 2011 to work for one of the federal government’s largest education agencies, where she oversaw an $850 million annual investment budget in STEM education across the country at places like the University of Maine.
Ferrini-Mundy didn’t follow the typical trajectory through the bureaucratic ranks to land a university president position — a characteristic that strengthens her leadership over the more than 11,000 students in the university system, Chancellor James Page said.
“She rose through the ranks from an academic perspective. It’s nonstandard in that way, but actually that’s far from a bad thing,” Page said. “It shows she’s always pursuing the path she believes would allow her to have the maximum impact on the problems, challenges and opportunities that were of interest to her.”
As a research-heavy university that prides itself on its relationship with state institutions, “there’s an enormous confluence of needs that we have that she brings to the table in terms of her experience and knowledge,” Page said. Setting aside Ferrini-Mundy’s devotion to research, she’s a national expert in mathematics. “That’s where it all begins,” Page said.
As more jobs require fluency in science and math, it falls to the university to mind that shift, Page said.
Earlier this month, Ferrini-Mundy attended an event in Dagher’s center, alongside U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and the director of the state Department of Transportation, where students displayed cutting-edge methods of building sturdier and longer-lasting bridges — a feat that recently earned UMaine the reins to direct a federally funded coalition tasked with improving New England’s crumbling roadways over the next five years.
It’s the promise of future endeavors like these, under Ferrini-Mundy’s leadership, that bolster Dagher and his colleagues.
“You can imagine how exciting it is for engineers and scientists to be working with President Ferrini-Mundy, and the increased impact we can have on research, education and jobs in our state,” Dagher said.
In her free time, Ferrini-Mundy, a mother of three grown children, enjoys putting her master gardening skills to work in cultivating her new home garden in Orono, where she lives with her husband, Rick. She’s also an avid birder, spending what little free time she has learning about Maine’s avian species.
As for how she feels about being the university’s second female president in its 153-year history, Ferrini-Mundy said she doesn’t often think about it.
“From time to time it dawns on me. Daily, I don’t think about it,” she said, pausing before she continued.
“I do think, as I talk to students, as I talk to early career faculty whose pathways are about to unfold before them and to be able to envision themselves in certain roles,” she said. “You want people to be able to imagine anything is possible.”
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