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New UMaine president says research and 21st century focus are keys to the future

Michael York | BDN
Michael York | BDN
UMaine president Paul Ferguson in his office at Alumni Hall Thursday, Aug. 11, 2011.
By Nick McCrea, BDN Staff

ORONO, Maine — University of Maine President Paul Ferguson has a lot of questions just two weeks before the start of his first semester at the school.

What does a 21st century land-grant university do?

How does a university sustain itself through continued budget cuts?

How does UMaine attract and keep students?

Is the university as efficient in energy use, funding and operations as it could be?

Ferguson said he plans on finding the answers during his first year at the university.

“With a month’s perspective, you’re getting a lot of vision,” Ferguson said during an interview last week. “We’ll have bold ideas by the end of the year.”

Ferguson, a Southern California native, became UMaine’s 19th president on July 1, taking over for six-year President Robert Kennedy.

He earned a doctorate in pharmacology and toxicology from the University of California, Davis, before doing research in the field. He taught at the University of Louisiana, Monroe, where he worked as dean of graduate studies and research and vice provost.

At the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Ferguson served as vice president for research and graduate studies from 2003 to 2006. He was credited with boosting annual extramural funding from $59 million to $95 million and the number of graduate programs from 74 to 108, according to his biography.

Before coming to UMaine, Ferguson served as provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where he also taught pharmacology and toxicology courses and continued to drive research in those disciplines.

Ferguson said his research-oriented background added to his excitement about the opportunity to work at a university focused on research and development of new technologies.

“I think what attracted me to UMaine in the first place was the opportunity to come in and lead an institution that was a student-centered, engaged university,” he said.

After years of continued cuts to the university’s budget and funding, the best way to assure a university’s survival is to develop 21st century technologies, Ferguson said.

“The only sustainable financial model is going to be a very diverse entrepreneurial approach,” he said.

UMaine is well on its way, Ferguson said, with facilities such as the $17.5 million Offshore Wind Laboratory expansion at the Advanced Structures and Composites Center and the project to convert the former Stewart Dining Commons to a hub for the new media program.

Pushing growth in scientific research and economic opportunity in Maine are key to assuring the university’s sustainability, he said.

“We have to be more entrepreneurial in extending our different sources of revenue — public-private, development dollars, tuition dollars — and we have to be very strategic about that and very committed to that,” he said.

The growth can’t be limited to scientific research, he said.

“You have to find ways to balance growth and development across the disciplines,” he said. “A hallmark of my presidency will be a commitment to do that.”

The new media building is one step toward improving the balance between the science and technology programs and the arts and humanities, he said.

Ferguson also said he’s determined to preserve and maintain buildings in the university’s historic district, which expanded this year to include more than 35 campus buildings, according to the UMaine campus planning office.

The age of the buildings ranges from 178-year-old Page Barn to 46-year-old Little Hall.

“This is a tremendous campus of heritage, tradition and legacy,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson, his wife, Grace, daughter Jenny, a UMaine sophomore studying political science and French, and the family dog, Charlie, are still settling into one of these historic buildings, the 139-year-old President’s House on campus, Ferguson said.

“The boxes are pretty well unpacked,” he said. “I think everybody’s enjoying the transition and enjoying every aspect of Maine so far.”

With just two weeks left before UMaine students swarm campus, Ferguson said he’s ready to continue to push the university forward.

“You have exciting programs, an exciting tradition and great people,” he said. “From a presidential perspective, that’s just gold.”

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