LEWISTON — Glenn Cummings came to town Thursday morning warm, funny and with lots of love for Lewiston-Auburn.

The new University of Southern Maine president and former state legislator said new student undergrad enrollment was up 4 percent USM-wide in the fall of 2016 compared to the year before.

But at the L-A campus, it was up 37 percent.

“I have a deep respect for you, personally,” Cummings told the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce members gathered at the Ramada Inn. “I want to talk to you about why — this is so true — you are absolutely central to whether USM will succeed.”

Cummings said his father, grandfather and great-grandfather had all worked at Bath Iron Works, which gave him a lot of respect for manufacturing.

“I have a sense of what you have gone through and how tough you have fought to get it back,” he said.

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Regarding the university, Cummings said faculty morale is up, financial aid has been “repackaged” to better help students, its budget has been balanced — a massive improvement over its $16 million debt two years ago — and philanthropic giving is up.

“Nobody wants to give you a penny if you can’t pay your daily bills,” he said.

On Friday, the school plans to announce that the USM Foundation had surpassed its fall goal of raising $1 million and raised $1.5 million, which Cummings said he saw as part of USM’s continued turnaround.

“Our alumni, I don’t care if it’s $15 a year or $15,000 a year, the indicator that people are starting to come back is that they’re giving us money, because nobody has to give us money,” Cummings said.

America faces a challenge in getting more people through college, he said, and states like Maine face an additional challenge in getting enough people, period.

“We can’t seem to fill the jobs here in Maine and in Lewiston-Auburn that’s demanded of us by the economy, and that is a very scary thing,” he said. “I’m sure every one of you has a story: ‘I put out an ad to find somebody and I couldn’t find somebody.'”

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Cummings also gave a nod to the local high school, drawing the most applause of the morning.

“I want to say thank you: Lewiston High School is the only high school in Maine to show significant growth last year,” he said. “I know that that’s created some stress, but I can tell you right now, if you want to point to why you should be optimistic: If you’ve got a high school that’s growing, you’ve got an asset. You’ve got bodies. You’ve got energy. You’ve got people. And if you can keep that going, you’re going to have a really strong economy.”

USM has more than 7,800 students among campuses in Portland, Gorham and Lewiston. As of last fall, the Lewiston campus had grown to 461.

Moving forward, students have said they want three things, according to Cummings: to feel welcome and connected; more financial aid; and more internships and real-world experience.

USM stands out because of opportunities it can offer students in Portland and the Twin Cities, he said.

“We can put them into a lot of experiences that nobody else can and get them ready for the jobs they need,” Cummings said. “Those three things are critical to our moving forward. And that means Lewiston-Auburn is crucial to that, because you are growing. You have opportunities for our students to be able to do this, and we’re deeply, deeply grateful.”

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