The only sure thing about the current economic crisis is that it will eventually end. As we prepare for the post-recession economy here in Maine, we must not lose sight of the fact that the value of an educated citizenry is indisputable to employers, public servants, parents and students themselves.

No longer can typical high school graduates aspire to a middle-class salary and lifestyle. They need postsecondary education, and most would agree that these high school graduates need baccalaureate degrees. Increasingly, employers tell us that they seek to locate in communities that boast a high number of baccalaureate and graduate educated employees because these highly trained students contribute to the knowledge economy as teachers, lawyers, health professionals, actors, musicians, businesspeople and engineers. Simply put, well-educated workers keep employers wedded to a region.

The University of Southern Maine is our state’s only public comprehensive university, and USM educates its students to meet the needs of local employers at the same time that it seeks to be indispensable to its community. This effort is driven by USM’s mission, and it is precisely what a comprehensive university is designed to do. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than at USM’s Lewiston-Auburn College.

USM-LAC’s faculty not only conduct applied research that contributes significantly to its community but also work with local companies, governmental agencies, nonprofit organizations, schools and hospitals to serve the aspirations and needs of Mainers.

Several examples really stand out. Professor Roxie Black has a national reputation for her research on cultural competency in the health professions. She also chairs the master of occupational therapy program at USM-LAC, Maine’s only public program in a field that is widely regarded as providing some of the most recession-proof jobs in America. A visiting professor from the University of Toronto, who has taught in occupational therapy programs across five continents, has called USM-LAC’s program “stellar, and among the best in the world.”

The Franco-American Collection at USM-LAC is the largest repository of Franco-American archival material in the State of Maine, and the research of Professor Barry Rodrigue makes an invaluable contribution to our understanding and appreciation of the Franco-American community in Maine, its cultural impact on our state and its history.

Associate Dean for Community Relations Jan Phillips not only chairs the Steering Committee of College for ME-Androscoggin, which is housed at USM-LAC, but she also directs the LearningWorks facility at the college through which College for ME-Androscoggin conducts its work. LearningWorks collaborates with Andover College, Bates College, Central Maine Community College and many other community partners to double the number of college degrees in the county within the next 10 years.

USM-LAC’s students represent and reflect their community. In fact, a recent semester at USM-LAC provides powerful evidence: more than 400 students spent 28,585 hours working on a range of community-based projects as part of their academic coursework. This is a shining example of the role public comprehensive universities can play when they reach out to their communities through applied research, cultural enrichment and the advancement of educational attainment.

Back in 1983, William W. Young Jr., executive director of Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, wrote to Lewiston Mayor Paul R. Dionne, making the case for establishing a public university campus in Lewiston-Auburn: “I can think of no greater guarantee of countless benefits for the people of the Lewiston-Auburn region, for the economic survival of the area, and for the preparation of our young people for the decades ahead.”

Those sentiments still resonate today as the Lewiston-Auburn campus of the University of Southern Maine prepares students for productive lives and careers in the post-recession economy.

Selma Botman is the 10th president of the University of Southern Maine and was previously the executive vice chancellor and university provost for the The City University of New York, the nation’s largest urban public university. 

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