PORTLAND, Maine — Glenn Cummings, the University of Southern Maine’s new president, spent his first two months on the job trying to create a better sense of community at an institution that has struggled to find unity with multiple campuses, cultural differences between residential and commuter students and, in recent years, faculty discontent.
“Sixty days ago I had the honor of stepping into this office,” Cummings said during an Aug. 27 kickoff breakfast for students, faculty and staff. “The first day of work I was a little nervous, but the next 60 days I kept hearing stories about just how great this university is.”
He continued his speech by explaining his plans to make the university feel like a community, saying the first thing he did was to move his office to Luther Bonney Hall, in the heart of the university’s Portland campus.
“I’d like to be able to engage with students on a daily basis, because communication is one of our most important assets here,” Cummings said. “If people tell you our greatest asset is Portland, they are wrong. Our greatest asset is you.”
Cummings also wants students to feel more engaged and be able to obtain the “community feel” other colleges provide.
Kailey Harris, a freshman English major, is happy to hear the president’s office will be located the middle of campus to ensure he interacts with students once in a while.
“If I wanted to ever go in and talk to him about something, it makes it easier to do that now,” Harris said. “He will have the ability to interact with students and hear our complaints or positive thoughts about our experiences on campus.”
“Our goal is to create physical spaces for students to learn and grow,” Cummings said. “We added admissions down to the Abromson Center so students can have an easier time finding it. We need good academic leaders that are helping us maximize faculty and staff connections.”
Travis Ford, a sophomore history major, explained that it can be hard to meet new people as a commuter student.
“There are no dorm rooms or coordinators for our commuter students to find friends here at USM,” Ford said. “It would be nice for our new president to find ways to engage students more often.”
Cummings compared USM to an old 1970s rug, saying that if you look beneath the surface there is a beautiful hardwood floor waiting to be appreciated.
“We have amazing faculty, dedicated staff and determined students,” Cummings said. “We have fantastic researchers and fantastic people who want to make a difference for USM.”
Despite the university’s overall enrollment declining 13 percent and 7 percent in the past two years, respectively, Cummings said USM will not be laying off any staff this year. He explained, however, that the tradeoff would assume no new staff could be hired.
This means USM needs to become a more attractive option in the larger market of Maine and New England’s universities in order to increase student enrollment and fix its fiscal situation.
“There are two different paths we could take,” Cummings said. “One path says we don’t meet goals for enrollment and therefore layoffs will be necessary next year. The second path, if we were to work together, will strengthen our student retainment [and] we can reduce the likelihood of layoffs.”
Cummings said the university this year will add a budget advisory committee, which will allow community members to sit in an open and transparent discussion about their financial situation for the 2017 fiscal year.
“We will be known not as a second choice, but we will be known where academic excellence combines with real-world experience,” Cummings said. “We will be known throughout New England and maybe throughout the nation. That is a goal I’m certain we can achieve.”