Surprise! I’m back!

Truly, when I wrote my last column back in May, I thought I was done with the university president role. And I have to report that retirement — all two days of it — was great.

Then, Chancellor Jim Page, the head of the University of Maine System, asked me to help out and lead the University of Southern Maine for a while, and I agreed.

It has been a trip! As with all things in life, it comes in stages.

First stage: What did I do to myself? Am I nuts?

Second stage: I am nuts, and it’s depressing.

Third stage: Information overload! USM has three campuses, thousands of employees and students and everybody brings me a written briefing that I need to digest. Besides, I have to learn their names.

Fourth stage: If I’m not going to be retired, I’d better be having lots of fun. Bring it on!

That’s the stage I am at today.

I did have to change hats. Now I wear a USM baseball cap.

Everywhere I go in central and southern Maine, I find people who have a USM connection. A service provider at a hospital; a cashier at the grocery store; a bank executive; a community leader; a school principal — they all graduated from USM, they work here, or they are a current student.

More than 34,000 USM alumni live in Maine. That’s a lot of connections. One of my jobs this year is to make sure everyone knows about them.

Meanwhile, I am back as a public college president, traveling around and meeting people, so I am hearing all the usual complaints about the job that higher education is doing, or not doing, for Maine.

For example: We have lots of underprepared students entering college, and we need to remediate them. Or this one: We have lots of jobs, but the college graduates are in the wrong areas. Or this: It’s too expensive. And finally: If graduates want jobs, they have to leave Maine.

These are the tried and true rants. Feel free to add your own. But hearing them in a new context is making me question many of them even more than I did before.

So now I ask: How come we are still trying to solve this the same old way? Are we just loving the problem instead of solving it?

How has the world changed since we started this line of questions? Could there be new ways of construing the problems, or new ways to approach solutions? Or both?

Notice what I am not doing. I am not saying these things are not problems. I am saying we need some new thinking about what the questions are and what the solutions might be.

For example, today’s students are mostly all “digital natives” in a way we older folks can never be. How does this change the way we should invite students to learn?

Using online resources, we can find anything we need to know, or learn anything we want. How does that change the teaching and learning model?

How can we serve place-bound students who don’t have ready access to these technologies? If the Internet is a disruptive technology, then how will the world be changing, and how do our 20th century models of education need to change to be most effective. Or should we just try to hold on to the status quo?

I have some thoughts on answers that I will share with you in future columns. Just to warn you in advance, I think we need a time of experimentation with different models, and I hope USM will be trying a few.

I intend to borrow some rules of behavior from Innovation Engineering, especially “fail fast, fail cheap.” That is, it can’t be high stakes, one answer is going to do it. We simply don’t know enough to be sure.

We need to try new things, then build on those that seem to work and abandon the inventions that don’t work out as we had hoped. Engineers do this all the time. We need to as well.

I have given up trying to predict what my life is going to be like in the future, but I hope to be back next time with more thoughts about inventions in education.

Theodora J. Kalikow is president of the University of Southern Maine. She can be reached at [email protected]