ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine System should look into developing interdisciplinary majors, encouraging international cross-cultural studies and finding new ways to teach nursing in order to build a well-educated work force prepared for jobs in Maine’s changing economy.
Those were some of the ideas offered by attendees at “Advancing Maine: Aligning Academic Programs to Meet Future Work Force Needs,” a daylong summit held Tuesday at UMaine’s Wells Conference Center.
More than 200 people, many from within the UMaine System along with others in the business world, listened to presentations from innovation, development and labor experts in the morning. Attendees later shared their own thoughts about how best to position students for the future.
UMaine System Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Jim Breece, who organized the summit, said the state must make more of an investment in higher education, and the system must look internally to make changes.
“The solution to a successful and vibrant Maine economy is through higher education, and yes, that does require an investment,” he said. “We heard today that higher tuition is not the way out and you can’t cut yourself to greatness. You have to be unique.”
Gov. John E. Baldacci gave the opening statement, and several members of the UMaine System board of trustees were in attendance.
Participants at each table discussed what kinds of programs the system should focus on and then reported their discussions to the larger group.
“We believe we ought to have a research program in aging, gerontology, the study of the environmental and health needs of senior citizens,” said John Wright, dean of the School of Applied Science, Engineering and Technology at the University of Southern Maine. “We also agreed we need to and continue to push forward on alternative energy, sustainability and environmental issues. It has so much potential.”
Patric Santerre, the owner of Arcadia Designworks in Portland, reported that his group came up with a similar range of research ideas.
“[One] of the three research programs we highlighted were some type of program that teaches the economics of health care,” he said. “It may be out there now, but we think health care is a major issue. We also mentioned energy and sustainability, and we also mentioned the environment.”
Harlan Onsrud, a UMaine professor in the department of spatial information and engineering, said the system should experiment with the current curriculum rather than create new majors.
“We need to reinvent what we already have,” he said.
Other suggestions included putting more of an emphasis on studies related to the tourism, hospitality and culinary industries; ergonomic and disability studies; and the expansion of innovation engineering to the entire UMaine System.
Innovation engineering, which helps people apply their unique ideas or inventions to the real world, was the subject of the keynote address given by Doug Hall, a Maine native and UMaine graduate who runs an innovation consulting business with clients from around the world.
Hall, who started UMaine’s innovation engineering program, the first of its kind in the country, said unique ideas at all levels, done quickly and in small steps, will help the state come out of the recession.
“We call it ‘fail fast, fail cheap,’” he said. “We need to get into rapid cycles, dissolving risks with small steps.”
Hall also called for increased cooperation among the UMaine System campuses and departments.
“The relay race between departments ain’t gonna do it,” he said. “It’s about breaking those silos and bringing it together. That’s where the big wins are.”
Laurie LaChance, the president and CEO of the Maine Development Foundation, told the audience that higher education is the key in Maine to increasing income, which in turn will grow the economy.
“The University of Maine becomes a very important piece of helping people, and never [before] in our economy have we needed [more] those higher education opportunities to help us to re-engage with the economy as we transition in and out of different industries,” she said.
UMaine System Trustee Marge Medd of Norway said the trustees would discuss over the next few months many of the points raised Tuesday.
“We’ll focus on the outcomes of today and then talk about how we’re going to restructure higher education,” Medd said. “I think this is the time, because we don’t have money, that the opportunity is there. We have to innovate. We have to think differently.”