A sustainable model for higher education that transforms lives. What would it look like in Maine? To get to some ideas, here are three conditions to think about.

• Maine has a good track record on social justice issues and many progressive causes. So let’s celebrate and sustain the social justice ideal that is behind public higher education: Public benefits result from educating individuals to imagine and have the tools to create their futures, take or make their places in society, raise healthy families, take part in civil society and all the rest. That means a continuing state contribution to public higher education, although given the increasing number of social justice causes competing for limited state funding, it is not going to be as robust as it once was.

• In our state, higher education institutions are often the largest employers in their areas. Communities support them for their various economic and cultural contributions: Arts programs, educated people and their families living locally, students supporting a wider variety of goods and services than otherwise available, an educated workforce that loves its school and does not want to leave, or that originated in that place and wants or needs to stay.

• Maine is big in geography and small in population. We have a relatively large amount of infrastructure (roads, state offices and services, electrical and telephone wiring, police and fire) supported by relatively small amounts of taxes, serving a population that is thinly spread in many areas of our state. We have a social fabric that is robust in some places, thinning in others and shredded in others. Overall, our state’s social fabric is not sustainable.

There’s no money! We have to do something! It’s a truism today that Maine has “too much” higher education infrastructure to serve our current population, so we ought to save lots of money by streamlining. We are doing a lot with centralization of services and finding efficiencies.

But more cuts need to be made! What and where? Good luck trying to close or even change a campus very much. Immediately the community raises a hue and cry and mobilizes its legislators to protect “its” asset. It’s good to save money, but let them do it someplace else!

Granted, if we were building a public higher education system in Maine today, we would never build what we have now. Our predecessors did their best with limited resources to build for their present and their envisioned future. We have to build anew, not just dismantle. It is hard to have a new idea, though.

Here’s one I recently invented. Actually, I concocted it from a lot of stuff that is in the air about education, civic engagement and innovation, which is a common way of inventing. Warning: it may not be very good or even realistic. It is only a partially baked idea, and it might prove to be completely undoable.

What if, instead of arguing the same old way about the individual benefits of higher education, and eventually the civic benefits, we talked directly about higher education as a particular civic benefit: strengthening Maine’s social fabric. What if we aimed to help stop the shredding, and repair the thin parts of the fabric? What if we treated the existence of public higher education institutions on every corner as an asset instead of a liability? What if we used our physical assets in different ways, not only as instructional delivery spaces but also as community (read: business, nonprofit, arts) networking spaces linked to other community spaces by new technologies?

Maybe people might not have to travel too far to do some initial networking, or meet some other entrepreneurs, or connect with useful businesses in a supplier or inventor network. Maybe other funding sources could help support new services. What if students and businesses and faculty and community partners all could come together to solve problems not bounded by geography and what happens to be down the street?

There’s the possibility of getting some other players besides the traditional public higher education institutions into the game, too. State government, Maine Development Foundation, the Humanities and Arts Foundations, Maine Technology Institute, Chambers of Commerce, regional development corporations, all the little nonprofits spread out across Maine could themselves be knitted into a more sustainable fabric.

If anyone’s interested in thinking together about where this idea could go, be in touch. In a year or less, I will be looking for some new challenges myself.

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

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