February 18, 2019
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Alumni and students don’t like it, but name change will attract out-of-state interest, university says

University of Southern Maine President Glenn Cummings was up front about a proposed name change Wednesday morning: Students and alumni don’t like it.

But he said by calling the school the University of Maine at Portland, research shows significantly more out-of-state guidance counselors will recommend it to students and more high school graduates will consider enrolling.

And Cummings said USM can’t afford to be satisfied just drawing students from around the state, where elementary and high school enrollment is expected to continue declining, shrinking the pool of potential future Huskies.

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“Students and alumni live in these two or three [nearby] counties,” he said, “so their world looks like, ‘Why would we bother to change?’ It’s understandable. They don’t wake up and say, ‘How’s that university doing? What’s happening in the future?’ I’m paid, in part, to look around the next corner.

“If we could build a business plan on just these three counties, we’d do it,” Cummings continued. “But it’s not possible.”

The name change is being recommended by USM administrators. It must be approved by the University of Maine System Board of Trustees in the spring or summer of this year and approved by the Legislature during the following session before it can be implemented.

According to a timeline distributed to reporters Wednesday, the name change would be effective during the summer or fall of 2021 if it’s approved.

[USM packs dorm rooms as enrollment numbers go up]

USM has campuses in Portland, Gorham and Lewiston, and is the second largest public university in Maine, behind just the system’s flagship university in Orono.

Cummings said during a news conference Wednesday in Portland that in a survey of prospective students, Maine’s largest city was viewed very positively — 79 percent said they agree it “has a lot of interesting things to do,” 75 percent agreed it “attracts a lot of young people” and 63 percent called it “an appealing college town.”

The survey also showed that 81 percent of out-of-state guidance counselors said they were more likely to recommend the university to one of their students knowing it’s in Portland, and that 55 percent of student respondents they’d be more likely to consider the school knowing it’s in the city.

“[Our researchers] said, ‘You could spend lots of dollars, millions of dollars over the next decade really emphasizing that Portland is a major site for your university and keep it the same name,’” said Cummings. “But they said it would be a lot cheaper in the long run just to change your name.”

[Maine lawmakers must again consider student debt relief]

The school president acknowledged that the same market survey had some bad news, though. He said 66 percent of alumni who answered said they oppose the prospective name change, as do 57 percent of current students.

“They say, ‘Well, you know, we’ve always been this name,’” Cummings said. “I’m thinking, ‘No, since when my grandmother graduated in 1927 from the Gorham Normal School, we’ve had six name changes in 90 years.’ So the answer is, it’s not exactly like Bowdoin [College] or St. Paul’s [School], where it’s been the same for 250 years and nobody’s ever touched the name.”

The institution has been called the University of Southern Maine since 1978, after eight years using the name University of Maine at Portland-Gorham. Before that, the Gorham and Portland campuses were separate schools, Gorham State College and the University of Maine at Portland. Other names used by the two campuses over the years included Portland University, Portland Junior College and Gorham State Teachers College.

Cummings said he plans to launch a “community dialogue” about the name change, with events at around the university’s three campuses. But he described the events as more of an opportunity to explain why the administration is recommending the change than open up an argument over whether it’s a good idea.

“You might say, ‘Well, have you already made up your mind?’” he said. “The data clearly leads us in a direction where we have to bring this to the Board of Trustees. The purpose of these forums is really important, though. When people hear the data, a lot of people do shift their minds. They say, ‘I kind of see where you’re going and I can see why this is helpful.’”

He said changing sports uniforms, signs and documents would add up to $750,000 “minimum,” but that attracting 100 new students would offset that cost in one year.

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