Journalism: Urbanism: Urban Urban Conditional: Fixing USM is very complicated, but it is also very simple

September 23, 2015

Urban Conditional: Fixing USM is very complicated, but it is also very simple

by Zack Barowitz

The problems at the University of Southern Maine are so deep and complex that defining them often gets in the way of finding a solution. But current crises aside, the solution is contained in four simple words: University of Maine, Portland.

Not that this is a new idea.

USM has a convoluted history that correlates with changes in perception and demographics of cities. In 1957, “Portland University” merged with “Portland Junior College” to form the “University of Maine in Portland.” In 1970 it merged again, this time with the “University of Maine in Gorham” (which itself was founded in 1878 as “Gorham Normal School”) to become “University of Maine, Portland-Gorham.” This merger coincided with a 10 percent drop in Portland’s population, the largest in the city’s history and, not coincidentally – a 36 percent rise in Gorham’s population, the largest in that city’s history. In 1978 it changed its name again to “University of Southern Maine,” and 10 years later USM expanded to a third campus, in Lewiston.

The expansion, or exodus, into Gorham follows the larger trend of suburban sprawl, but in recent decades the pendulum has swung back. The university is due for another restructuring.

Millennials, professionals, students and retirees have been moving to Portland to enjoy the cultural life and walkable cityscape that the urban core has to offer. (Although with displacement, the transition has not always been equitable.) Crime may have been a concern back in the ’70s, but today the greatest risk to student safety is alcohol and drug related: drunk driving, alcohol poisoning, and acquaintance rape; which may be exacerbated by the boredom and driving distances associated with siting a college in an isolated exurb.

In any case, the repopulation of the city by affluent and/or educated populations is not lost on the school’s administration.

Recently USM hired a consultant to build, and brand, something called the “Metropolitan University.” Thus far the description has been rather vague and usually includes a seemingly gratuitous word at the end: “the Metropolitan University model,” presumably because you don’t need to have a metropolis to have a MetU. All snickering aside, it really is a good idea, if taken in practical terms. At the crux is shared knowledge and resources between the academy and the cosmopolitan population in which it sits.

So what would a UMaine, Portland look like?

Art history lectures can be conducted in the Portland Museum of Art’s auditorium, drama classes and performances can take place at many of the city’s theaters on the nights that they are dark. Industrial areas like Thompson’s Point, Read Street and Presumpscot Street can be revitalized by classrooms, labs and housing. Political science classes can be held in unused conference rooms in city hall; and the city’s industries can partner with students and faculty to a much greater depth than the internship model. University athletics can take advantage of Portland’s municipal facilities: Hadlock Field, Fitzpatrick Stadium, the Expo, the Ice Arena and the Civic Center (Cross Insurance Arena).

These objectives can be met fairly easily by the divestiture of the Gorham Campus either by sale or lease so that the proceeds may be invested in partnerships and facilities around Portland. (The Lewiston campus is both institutionally and geographically ready – even their website describes the college as being “in the heart of central Maine” – to stand on its own as UMaine, Lewiston.)

The Gorham campus is not a bad asset.

Apart from being greeted at an entrance by a large white phallus (which the builders at least had the decency to circumcise), the campus has some interesting architecture, especially from the late 19th century, and of a High Modern style which could attract an institutional or residential buyer. Whatever the highest and best, (or most profitable) re-use, the transition can be made slowly – this is not the evacuation of Hanoi.

The problem is that the university has in recent years invested heavily in the Gorham campus. But the investment seems to be as much emotional as it is financial. Consider the the bizarre decisions to house the art department, Gallery, drama department, and Theater in a quiet farming community, not in the state’s cultural capital. Moreover, having three campuses over a wide region is a logistical money pit – consider the annual fuel costs – which routinely leads to snafus of goods, or people, showing up in the wrong places. Why is the university administration so devoted to Gorham? It is hard to conjecture but perhaps they simply enjoy being a big fish.

Portland today is a hot town but it lacks a high profile university that can enhance its intellectual and economic life; the university is seeking a more cosmopolitan identity. A marriage may not be imminent, but perhaps they might meet for a drink?