May 24, 2018
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State’s universities a breed apart

By James Shaffer, The Deans of Business

At the risk of stimulating cynical jokes … what do dogs and universities have in common?

Like dogs, universities come in different breeds. While most Mainers understand that the state’s universities differ from each other, I don’t hear distinguishing labels applied to the different “breeds.” To facilitate our dialogue about Maine’s institutions of higher education, let’s focus on the differences.

Essentially, the state’s universities and community colleges are all producing some sort of product, in part for the state’s business community. Each is set up by its mission or “breed” to meet different needs for different populations, and it’s important to understand the differences and set expectations appropriately.

In his book, “Teaching at the People’s University,” professor Bruce B. Henderson compares and labels different types of universities. There are seven universities in the University of Maine System, eight counting the University of Maine Law School, and several of these fit nicely into Henderson’s typology. The University of Maine falls into the category he labels “research/doctoral” universities. Reading UM’s mission statement, you find references to “discovery,” “innovation,” and the clause “Internationally recognized research, scholarship, and creative activity distinguish the University of Maine as the state’s flagship university …” There are also multiple references to UMaine serving the nation and the world.

Henderson would call UMaine Farmington a “liberal arts” university. Consistent with this, UMF’s mission statement starts out with “As the public liberal arts college of the state of Maine…”

The University of Southern Maine is what Henderson refers to as a “regional comprehensive university.”  Comprehensive, as opposed to single or limited purpose.  Like USM, most comprehensives grew from the roots of normal schools and teachers colleges to eventually serve a broader mission of applied curricula, service, and research. Applied to the needs of the businesses and citizenry of the region. So, while USM’s faculty does some research of discovery and worldwide import, USM’s faculty research tends toward pragmatic local application. USM’s curricula is also tilted toward regional work force development, with, for example, strong programs in nursing, graduate education, music and business.

As you would expect, the universities differ significantly in the students served. Students typically go to UMaine in Orono, live there, study full time, graduate and then go away. The same applies to UMaine Farmington, which advertises “Farmington in Four” (four years, or the rest is free.) These are residential four-year universities serving traditional students who chose the university first over its location.

By comparison, the typical USM student is nontraditional. Many are place-bound people that mix education with work and/or family care. Since they are busy doing other things, they typically don’t finish baccalaureate degrees in four years. Many transfer in from other universities or community colleges, and many transfer out to other universities. The comprehensive university tries to welcome and serve them all.

The comparison of ages is telling, if you refer to the accompanying chart.

Another “breed” are the community colleges. While the baccalaureate institutions typically talk about preparing adaptive lifelong learners, the community colleges typically focus on the next step in life: Take this course and get this job. Or, start here and advance to a four-year institution.

So which university is “better?” Is a German shepherd better than a golden retriever? I can assure you of one thing, the University of Southern Maine is the best regional comprehensive in the state. It’s the only one, as is UMaine the only research/doctoral university. The point is that the public dialogue about higher education might be well-served by first thinking about the state’s needs and then thinking about which “breeds” of universities fit the needs.

In a future column I will write about the types and role of research performed at the different universities.

James Shaffer is dean of the University of Southern Maine’s College of Management and Human Service. He is a former media executive who served as the chief financial officer of the Los Angeles Times before coming to Maine in 1991 to be CEO of Guy Gannett Communications, which was based in Portland and had TV, newspaper, and other media properties in seven states.

Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

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