Monday, July 23rd, 2018

Invest in USM: Help Mainers stay in Maine

Posted on December 08, 2014 in Perspectives
By USM Free Press

By Emily Paine

There’s something about Maine, isn’t there? And as a Mainer in my early 20s, Portland was the place to be. When I first attended the University of Southern Maine, I wasn’t looking for a traditional education; I was working at a coffee shop and engaging in community organizing and art projects that took up a lot of my time.

I had the opportunity to go to a private liberal arts college. (I did actually attend Hampshire College for a year.) I grew up in midcoast Maine and my father is a doctor who believes in higher education, so I am one of a privileged few who could have gotten my degree at a private liberal arts college. But I didn’t want to go away to a liberal arts college. I wanted live in Portland, Maine: a vibrant city with so much to offer young Mainers, yet still so close to home and family.

What’s more, when I first started taking classes at USM, it wasn’t even in pursuit of a degree. I simply wanted to take good classes for the sake of learning. I enrolled in just two classes to begin with, the Politics of Difference and Creative Writing. They were excellent: the faculty, the students, the readings—I was hooked. I fit my courses in between work, projects, and friends.

Inspired by my faculty and experience at USM, I slowly came to realize that I wanted to pursue a PhD in Sociology, so that I could contribute to the world by generating social research and becoming a professor myself someday. I hunkered down to get my B.A. in Women & Gender Studies and Sociology.

But first, I considered transferring. Not because I wasn’t happy at USM—I loved it there. Most of my professors, like me, could have been at more prestigious universities and colleges. They stayed at USM for the same reasons I did: they wanted to live in Portland, Maine. And, they enjoyed teaching at a public university with a diverse student body.

But I thought that I’d have a better chance of getting into a PhD program if I had a more impressive name on my transcript. This is because USM, unlike top public universities in states that choose to invest in their institutions of higher education (such as the University of Michigan, California, Washington, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Oregon, and Texas—where I am now), has fallen behind. Again, this is not because of existing faculty. (Now that I’ve taken 24 graduate credits at a top program, I can say with confidence that the faculty I had the privilege of taking courses with at USM are extraordinary in both their teaching capabilities and their regard for their students’ success—both within and beyond the classroom.) Rather, it is because USM has been barred from hiring new faculty in many departments, and new faculty keeps a university fresh and relevant—in a word, competitive. If you cut off funding for new hires (or if you cut entire departments), you simply cannot compete with well-funded institutions.

In the end, I did finish my degree at USM. I couldn’t bring myself to leave the university and the city I loved. However, if I had to make that decision again today, I would leave. I could not risk having my future choices constrained by the whim of USM administrators who seem intent on gutting their own universities—administrators who inexplicably refuse to consider investment as a viable alternative to dismemberment.

Revolving administrators have argued that enrollment is declining, and yet, they’ve refused to acknowledge the toxic effect that hiring freezes, mismanagement, and their own missteps have had on enrollment. Young Mainers (and wannabe Mainers) would like to get a reliably competitive education at USM, but increasingly they are forced to look to neighboring states for what they need. Because it’s not just something about Maine, is it? It’s something about Portland.

The Board of Trustees and the administration are arguing that the University of Orono should serve as the only University of Maine system flagship, and that USM doesn’t deserve the kind of attention deserved by UMO. The problem is, many young Mainers (like myself) are not served well by UMO. We want access to a vibrant city, not an isolated “party school” (in the words of my little brother, who transferred from UMO to a private liberal arts college so that he could have a life outside of his coursework).

If I hadn’t been able to take classes at USM, which is well-designed to support non-traditional students and perfectly situated to allow students a rich life outside of classes and coursework, I’m not sure if I ever would gained the confidence to believe in myself as a scholar.

Those of us who want to stay in Southern Maine and get an affordable education—one that is competitive with top state universities—must make our message clear to university system administrators and state legislators alike: invest in USM. Invest in the UMaine system. Stop gutting our universities. Make Maine the place for the most enterprising, capable, and ambitious Mainers to get an education. Demand that your administrators do their research and follow the examples of state universities that have invested in expanding faculty and departments—and thrived.

Emily Paine is a doctoral student in the department of Sociology and a trainee in the Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. She received her B.A. in Women & Gender Studies and Sociology at the University of Southern Maine in 2011. She dreams of one day returning to Maine to teach sociology.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.