Friday, October 19th, 2018

Portland’s civic leadership must fight for USM in Augusta

Posted on November 10, 2014 in Perspectives
By USM Free Press

By John Anton

John Anton served two terms on the Portland City Council from 2007 – 2013.

People move to Portland from all over Maine, the US, and the world. We—I am one of them—move here for many reasons. We want to live in a beautiful and safe place; to escape violence or hatred at home; and to learn more about ourselves and others. We want to join those already here and help make our community thrive—to enhance Portland’s growing reputation as a vibrant and desirable destination for bright and creative young people, immigrants, and businesses. And a strong USM is an irreplaceable part of Portland’s desirability.

USM is a powerful draw for Portland. It brings people to Portland to teach, to do research, and to learn. It also attracts those who want to be part of a community with a university, with all the cultural, intellectual, and economic benefits that entails. Most importantly, USM is one of the places where the people of Portland regularly come together to create our community—by meeting new people, experiencing new cultures, and exchanging ideas.

It is often difficult to tell if these things truly matter to our municipal leaders, who have been mostly quiet about the crisis at USM. But the fact of the matter is that the City of Portland has already said, officially, that these things matter, having spent the better part of the last decade trumpeting the “Creative Economy”—few things are more critical to the success of the Creative Economy than a strong university.

In their 2006 report The University and the Creative Economy, Richard Florida and his colleagues discuss “the university’s […] powerful role […] in generating, attracting, and mobilizing talent, and in establishing a tolerant social climate—that is open, diverse, meritocratic and proactively inclusive of new people and new ideas. The university thus comprises a powerful creative hub in regional development.”

The City of Portland has identified the so-called creative industries as the leading economic sector in our region. In recognition of the importance of this sector, the City founded (and continues to fund) the Creative Portland Corporation to “enhance and create business in the creative economy.” In fact, the CPC’s Director was hired from USM, where the work documenting the creative industries’ role in our regional economy was done.

Unfortunately, by staying silent during the current round of bloodletting, our municipal leaders appear to subscribe to the notion that a diminished USM can still function as the creative hub for our regional economy.

I disagree.

Firing mid-career tenured faculty drains our community of critical intellectual capital. This intellectual capital is at the core of what USM brings to Portland. Professors do not simply impart facts, then punch the clock and go home. They nurture students, many times forming relationships that serve as a lifelong resource for graduates. Faculty live and invest in our community and make deep, lasting connections beyond the university. This nexus of relationships between faculty, students, and the larger community is the “powerful creative hub” that drives our creative economy.

I know from first-hand experience that Portland’s municipal leaders have their hands full advocating in Augusta. Every legislative session, state government pushes cuts to school funding, to municipal revenue-sharing, and to social service programs—and all of these cuts have direct impacts on Portland’s budget. I can understand how the fight for a strong USM can get lost while also waging these battles.

But our civic leaders—people like the Mayor and the leaders of the Creative Portland Corporation—must speak up on the importance of a thriving USM to Portland’s future and its overall quality of life. A USM that focuses narrowly on job training in STEM fields via online course delivery will weaken our vibrant creative economy. This is a message our leaders must take to Augusta.

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