Points of Pride and Progress
By T Love Smith, Contributor
Bright and early in the morning, on Wednesday, August 23rd, USM’s 14th President, Dr. Jacqueline Edmonson welcomed back staff for the 2023-2024 academic year with a continental breakfast in the mezzanine in Abromson’s Community Education Center. Several dozens of returning and new staff met and reconnected over coffee while noshing on fruit, breakfast pastries and they even had an opportunity to reenact a 17th century English tradition of adding sharp cheddar cheese to a slice of freshly-baked apple pie. The pie was served cold but folks were definitely seen enjoying the sweet and salty, traditional combination.
In the corner there was a professional photographer booth set up so that participants could receive free headshots by scanning a barcode and filling in their email address. The proofs would be in our email boxes the next morning with an invitation to choose one for photo editing. The mezzanine buzzed with a reverberant “welcome back, vibe,” as attendees munched until it was time for the President’s speech.
Just after 9am, once everyone found their way into seats in Hannaford Hall, Vice President of Equity, Inclusion and Community Impact, Dr. Idella Glenn read the University’s Land Acknowledgement, recognizing that USM was built on unceded Wabanaki Territory. The acknowledgement bore witness to some of the atrocities that were committed in the taking of this land and throughout this state we call Maine. This land acknowledgement was first read at the start of the 2021 USM Commencement and has since been adopted by the University.
Dr. Glenn spent time with the acknowledgement pointing out that “it’s important to articulate statements, but it’s more important to commit to the work of un-doing the first harm as noted in colorizing restorative justice.” She points to the collective work we still have to do to restore harms done through colonization, including in our State of Maine and at our University. In closing, she articulated, “we all have work to do and room to grow,” and announced that there will be a dedication and blessing for a new space for Native American students in the McGoldrick Center which will take place from 4-6pm on Tuesday, September 12th.
Dr. Glenn also invited all to join her for the Office for Equity, Inclusion and Community Impact Open House being held on September 15th, at their new location in Wishcamper 124. It’s a day-long event that will allow participants to have the opportunity to contribute to a visual display reflecting their journey at the University of Southern Maine. After telling the audience to be on the lookout for more details, Dr. Glenn introduced the President.
USM President, Dr. Jacqueline Ednmodson opened by acknowledging the “welcome back vibe” of reconnecting and how special a feeling that is as we begin a new year. This breakfast marks a first-year anniversary for the 14th USM President and she used this moment to recognize new staff and veteran staff who have been with the University for over twenty years. She asked them each rise to receive applause but also she asked them to become familiar with each others’ faces so new folks knew who they could go to with questions or concerns.
The President took a moment to acknowledge whom, among the staff, are USM alumni. This group of risers got the loudest and most drawn out applause and it was a bigger group than some may expect. The President used this opportunity to stress the importance of giving back to the next generation of students. “There’s an energy of optimism that comes with the Fall semester that is contagious and real and why I’m even here today,” said the President. She expressed how this is her “favorite time of year” because of the promise it holds.
The University of Southern Maine is beginning a new chapter, with the hiring of fresh diverse and dynamic staff, the President predicts that the future “will be marked by academic excellence, a culture of inquiry, and a time of expanded horizons as we pursue a national reputation as a comprehensive University.” The President promises that our University will become a “destination for students, faculty and staff from across the nation and around the world.” Becoming a University that stands out on the national level is something that is beginning to show promise.
Dr. Edmondson announced this time as an “historic moment,” highlighting the opening of the McGoldrick Center for Career and Student Success, the first resident hall on the Portland campus, Portland Commons and the newest coming attraction, the Center for the Arts which, she announced, “officially breaks ground in October,” but staff working in the Bedford Street buildings are already auditory witnesses to the monotonous thumping sounds of jackhammer literally breaking ground just across the street. She called the Lewiston-Auburn campus a “health education corridor which connects us to the Lewiston-Auburn communities through our programs in nursing, occupational therapy, health sciences, and social and behavioral sciences.”
The President expressed appreciation for even more “points of pride,” such as the Great University Campaign and “strong collaborations with sister universities.” She quoted several numbers which are rising like second term retention, which is the highest it’s been in eleven years at 89.2%. “That’s a big deal,” the President thinks aloud. Some other numbers she liked were fifth and sixth year graduation rates which have risen slightly but are areas she’d like to work with staff to target and improve.
Dr. Edmondson announced that there are some new academic programs including undergraduate degrees in industrial engineering, project and supply chain management, special education, and an occupational therapy assistant program. She praised our academic and staff pool as “strong and competitive,” coming from “across the country and across the world.”
The biggest Presidential praise was given to USM Foundation President, Ainsley Wallace and her team who raised over $14 million in the past year toward the $46 million goal of the Great University Campaign. “Increasing philanthropy and public support makes it possible for us to have nice things that support enrollment and retention,” says Dr. Edmondson. There’s large plaques on the wall at the top of the stairs on the second floor of the new McGoldrick Center for Career and Student Success, celebrating the philanthropist’s who have made a huge impact to the recent renovations at USM.
Finally, she focused on three key priorities for staff for the 2023-2024 academic school year. One is to continue to build a sense of community. She encouraged staff to “check in with coworkers” in an “intentional and meaningful way” and to attend school events to show support, strengthening community. Second, she wanted to “double down on our service promise” of being “student-focused.” She took time to witness how hard students are working and the challenges they may face. She made a request to staff to, “please greet our students. Learn their stories. Show up for them. They deserve the very best we can offer and then some.” Our students-first priority sets us apart from many University models.
The president has established a President’s Budget Advisory Board to help address the new budget which includes several committees and she put it out to all the staff that she is looking for more talented folks to add to the team. She listed what she feels are important to prioritize for fiscal responsibility, the “Five R’s:” recruitment, retention, research, revenue and reputation. When the president was finished with her speech, Ainsley Wallace expressed pride for such a generous fundraising community and thanked all who were part of helping her raising team.
Dr. Georita Frierson, the brand new USM Provost and VP of Academic Affairs, who prefers to be called, “Dr. G” by students, and just “G” by co-workers, started off her speech by bringing attention and applause to the folks “behind the scenes” who made the welcome breakfast possible. Dr. G stressed that she takes, “diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility and belonging extremely seriously” as she believes these areas are important to keep in focus daily. She said, “building relationships is essential for the work that we do” and she said something key to that is to gain a solid understanding of human behavior. “Human behavior is the foundation of how we connect well with each other and build relationships. When I say ‘human behavior,’ I mean verbal and nonverbal because I am a psychologist.” She stressed that, “listening and observing are critical components of building healthy and helpful relationships.” She expressed that the Provost’s office welcomes faculty, staff and students and how she’s “never too busy to grab a coffee, or a tea.”
The overall tone of the morning was set to a welcoming tune. As the dozens of attendees filtered out of Hannaford Hall there were many smiles, new conversations and fresh energy to start off the new academic year. A repeated note of the event that is clear is, whatever problems should arise, the administration promises to “put students, staff and faculty first” and continue striving for diversity, excellence, equality and inclusion. The most important components of the work to get there will be through community building and philanthropy.