The University of Southern Maine is putting its effort to change its name to the University of Maine at Portland on hold for the foreseeable future.
The Legislature was due to consider a bill to rename the university, which has campuses in Portland, Gorham and Lewiston, during its coming winter session. But the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Nathan Libby, D-Lewiston, has withdrawn the bill at the university’s request, said USM President Glenn Cummings.
The name change was expected to cost the university system $1.2 million, according to school officials. And, recently, three lawmakers from Windham — which neighbors Gorham — voiced their objections to the name change.
USM put the name change on hold for two main reasons, Cummings said.
The university realized there would not be enough time to discuss the name change with lawmakers during the Legislature’s short session, which is expected to last from January to April.
“We need to have more extensive discussion with legislators and with this short session we realized there would not be a lot of time,” he said.
In addition, Cummings said, the delay in trying to change the name would allow time to start construction of a new career and student center and 550-bed residential hall on the Portland campus.
Even if the name change proved successful in attracting more out-of-state students, Cummings said, USM would have been unable to house them on the Portland campus until construction was completed.
The University of Maine System’s trustees approved the request to change USM’s name at their November meeting. The vote was in favor of putting forward legislation to change USM’s name because the move would require legislative approval.
The trustees’ approval of the request “for now stands unless they decide to reconsider,” Cummings said.
He told trustees during a September meeting that including the name of Maine’s largest city could prove a draw to out-of-state students and help grow enrollment.
“We’re the only one that doesn’t match the rest of the system,” he said to the board. “This isn’t about losing money. This is about making money for the stability of the university and the stability of the University of Maine System.”
At the meeting, Cummings said many of Maine’s biggest businesses supported the name change.
Enrollment at USM has grown 9 percent over the past five years, according to university system enrollment figures. But the recent growth followed a number of years of enrollment declines. In 2014, USM cut 51 faculty positions and eliminated several academic programs to address a budget shortfall.
Cummings has spent the past year touting the proposed name change, which would have taken effect in the fall of 2021. He said early this year that marketing research the university had done showed potential students and guidance counselors favorably viewed having Portland in the university’s name.
But in late November, the lawmakers from Windham released their statement criticizing the effort to emphasize Portland over the rest of the region.
“Wiping out the reference to the entire southern Maine region and replacing it with Portland is short-sighted and frankly insulting to hundreds of thousands of taxpayers who have supported USM over the years,” state Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, said. “There are almost 600,000 people in Southern Maine, most of whom don’t live in Portland, and they don’t deserve to be discarded in such a callous manner.”
The institution has been called the University of Southern Maine since 1978, after eight years using the name University of Maine at Portland-Gorham. The 125-acre Gorham campus is where USM’s residential halls are located.
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.