Saturday, October 20th, 2018

Invest in USM: Destroying the village in order to save it

Posted on November 19, 2014 in Perspectives
By USM Free Press

By: Dan Kolbert


As a building contractor, I’ve run a business and had employees in Portland for the past 16 years. I’ve had various personal and professional connections with USM, and have employed several students and graduates. I myself have taken classes both related to my business and not; and both my children attended the excellent USM Child Care center before it was disassembled in an earlier round of questionable budget cuts.

I have always been impressed by the quality of educational opportunities and by the community engagement at USM. I appreciate that it is the job of the administration and board of trustees to ensure the stability and future of the university, but watching from the outside, all I can think of is “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”

Despite the various efforts to define what a “metropolitan university” is, I confess to having no understanding of what it is supposed to mean.

If we take its proponents at face value, a metropolitan university is one that is engaged with and responsive to the community in which it is situated. I don’t know how to gauge its success, but hasn’t USM already proven itself to fill that role? On most significant policy questions, professors are called upon to weigh in. If there are world events exploding, public events at the school help make sense of it. If there are pressing business or policy skills needed, USM has often stepped up to offer classes and certificate programs.

As far as I can tell, what the phrase really means is putting the public resources of USM at the disposal of private interests. As a small business owner, I would be only too happy to have a public institution offer to train my workforce for me, but as a concerned citizen, I can’t help but think this isn’t the best approach.

A liberal arts education, available to many, was one of the great accomplishments of the US after World War II. It required a significant public investment.  Perhaps it was never meant to last, a statistical blip. If that’s the case, we at least need to be honest and say that higher education is once again the province only of the wealthy few, and that any schooling that doesn’t serve an immediate financial need is wasted on the many.

I hope that’s not the case. I was lucky enough to earn a college degree. I don’t know if it’s made me a better businessman, but I’m confident it made me a better person. The critical thinking skills I learned have served me well and helped me both make sense of and enjoy an ever more complicated world. I would like to think it’s made me a better citizen, but that’s not for me to judge.

Dan Kolbert is a building contractor who has lived in Portland since 1988.

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