FARMINGTON — Theodora J. Kalikow closed her eyes and thought about the 18 years she has spent as president of the University of Maine at Farmington.

She smiled and opened her eyes, pausing for a moment to adjust to the sun pouring in through her office’s large bay windows, which framed nearby snow-covered buildings on the quaint college campus.

“What I’m really most proud of is what all the students have accomplished,” she said.

When Kalikow retires this summer, she is positive these student success stories will be the first thing she thinks about while gardening and relaxing at her Mount Vernon home.

And as the longest-serving president since the school became a four-year college in 1945, Kalikow anticipates learning more about the thousands of students she has seen through to graduation.

She also plans to make frequent visits to the Emery Community Arts Center on campus, which Kalikow describes as a symbol of what she attempted to achieve during her time at the liberal arts college of about 2,000 full-time students.

The community arts center opened last fall after the college received a $5 million anonymous gift, highlighting Kalikow’s extensive fundraising efforts that added to and improved many of the buildings on campus.

With many unique venues to showcase artists from the college and community, Kalikow calls the center an example of her original goal to challenge students to find creative pathways to building a successful future.

“People will do things in (the center) that we can’t even imagine today,” she said.

 

Core values

Kalikow, 70, has seen a lot of changes at the state college in Franklin County, but she believes educational principles rooted in critical thinking and civic duty has always been and will continue to be the key to its success.

“The core values in education are still the same, but how we get there is just a little different,” she said.

She has seen the Internet and other new technology redefine how students think, learn and communicate, for example, bringing about an exciting revolution in higher education by connecting campuses across the globe.

Kalikow also forged partnerships with universities in China and other Asian nations, developing exchange programs she described as being among her proudest accomplishments as president.

She gave examples of students who studied abroad, graduated from the college in Farmington and went on to teach at schools in South Korea. These exchanges opened up an entirely new world of options to UMF students, many of whom had never been outside of Maine, she said.

Kalikow, who is a native of Swampscott, Mass., credits her small town upbringing with helping her to realize the importance of giving students a chance to expand their worldviews.

She traveled recently to China to expand the exchange programs and has been working to build similar programs in Argentina and other South American nations. Her goal is to keep working on these partnerships after retiring, when she plans to work for the University of Maine System on several educational projects.

 

Getting students engaged in learning

Kalikow wants to see continued growth for the many student internship programs she helped start, calling them a vital bridge from the classroom to workforce. They built strong relationships with businesses and community organizations that have given students experiences they simply can’t learn by studying, she said.

Many student interns found their life’s passion by seeing the innovative paths to success taken by people already building a better community. Freshmen who arrive on campus without a plan need these programs to discover that the world is full of opportunity and chances to make a difference, she said.

In 1998, Kalikow launched the UMF Student Work Initiative that has been the basis for the many internship programs. And the initiative was recently recognized for creating jobs and engaging students by the Forum for Youth Investment, a national research-based organization associated with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Kalikow also emphasized undergraduate research programs during her tenure. In 1999, she started an annual campus wide symposium event where students present their academic research, which they worked on with a faculty mentor.

Students were also able to participate in the UMF Wilson Research Program, a selective undergraduate project that has named nearly 150 student scholars since its inception in 2006. Many of these students went on to apply their academic research in graduate school or in their careers after graduation, Kalikow said.

She recalled a recent student who worked on a research project monitoring seasonal temperatures of alpine ponds in the region. He climbed mountains amid frigid temperatures to gather information, gaining him recognition for the research as well as teaching him a strong work ethic, Kalikow said.

“He learned about persistence and that attitude of sticking with something until the job is done, which is what applied research is all about,” she said.

These programs that engage students in their learning have helped bring a commitment to personal responsibility in the university’s overall success, which has been her top goal since the day she arrived on campus, Kalikow said.

The small state college in Farmington didn’t have the large endowments that private higher learning institutions use to run these programs. But it was able to work with the community to create a unique educational identity grounded in innovation, she said.

The challenges of tomorrow

Kalikow hopes she is leaving behind a versatile institution primed to meet the challenges facing the university in the coming years.

“I always wanted to instill pride in what we do here, and I think that the students, faculty and staff have done a great job in helping me to accomplish that,” she said.

“Whoever is picked to be the next president is taking over an institution that has done this before and been able to reinvent itself in the face of adversity.”

The college is in the process of finding the next president, with a search committee being led by University of Maine System Trustee Marjorie Medd.

Kalikow believes higher education in the U.S., including the University of Maine system, is at a turning point because the country is rethinking how it spends public money.

Many politicians and residents alike are less willing to support public investments in education and infrastructure, worried that mounting national debt outweighs the long-term returns on these once sacred pillars of society, she said.

Meanwhile, it is getting tougher for people to afford a higher education and future generations are in danger of being excluded altogether, she said.

More than half of the students at the university in Farmington are already eligible for federal higher education aid based on economic disadvantages, and that percentage is expected to keep rising, Kalikow said.

Many higher learning institutions, however, have already started to adapt to these changes. They are reshaping arguments to defend the value of investing in education and finding new ways to build public-private partnerships to sustain enough future funding, she said.

Kalikow plans to keep working for the University of Maine system for the next two years on these issues, with her retirement from UMF starting June 30. She will be consulting on projects seeking to improve access to higher education and promoting economic development initiatives statewide.

Her goal is to ensure that higher education in Maine remains strong and continues to serve the hardworking residents who seek to improve themselves and their communities. She described the effort to face the challenges ahead as a chance for educators to forge that bright new future.

“The creative stuff doesn’t happen until you’re faced with a problem,” she said. “And that’s what we’re doing now, coming up with the creative stuff.”

David Robinson — 861-9287

[email protected]

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