For about 150 years, public higher education in Maine has been changing with each new location and new social need. It started in 1864 with what’s now the University of Maine, Farmington, to train teachers. Then came what’s now University of Maine, to serve the agricultural and mechanical trades. Later other Maine towns got their colleges and technical institutes, and Maine Maritime came to Castine.

Public higher education expanded dramatically in Maine, as in the rest of the country, to serve GIs returning from World War II. Another expansion came as the explosion of baby boomers hit.

Developing disciplines such as engineering or the arts, and other functions such as research and development have been added to our public higher education institutions as the needs of business and industry arose.

Special populations such as Franco-Americans and Native Americans, and now New Americans and adult degree completers, have received attention. New workforce needs, such as the pulp and paper industry earlier and information technology today, have been identified and served. And on it goes. But underneath it all, there’s a set of assumptions about what public higher education should be and do. What are they?

Here are a couple of basic ones.

It’s a social good and it serves the state, so the taxpayers should support it. And every Maine citizen who qualifies should be able to get it. So far, so good.

But what’s “it?”

In a word, Harvard.

There’s something very right about this. After all, “Harvard” stands (forgive me, every other institution of higher education in the country) as the ultimate name for excellence and access to the entire human intellectual heritage, from architecture to zoology. (I mean, it does. This is how you can tell I’m a New Englander.) And of course, we want the sons and daughters of Maine to have that access and that excellence.

But with the perspective of today, and with the needs and worries of today on my mind, I can see that along with the aspirations to excellence and access, the founders of public higher education also bought the rest of the Harvard model, mostly because that was the only model available during most of the 19th century.

That is: they bought classes. Teachers. Buildings. Dormitories and undergraduate pranks. A time for completion of a set of required courses, that time measured in years. They bought the notion that while the purpose of educated citizens was to serve society by means of their professions and their civic lives as cultured individuals and family members, the institution where they acquired this learning and these habits of mind should be geographically separated from the rest of town life, and the classes should be theoretical and mostly taught out of books.

Now of course I’m cartooning here a little bit. The Farmington folks will recount the model school and the classroom experiences, and the Orono folks probably will mention surveying the fields and cutting down the forests, and the mariners probably will talk about small boat-building and navigating the fogs of Penobscot Bay.

But the point is, the students all went home after those practical experiences to their campuses, their professors, their house mothers and their required classes, taught in classrooms with their peers. It was public, largely paid for by taxpayers, so it was accessible and inexpensive. The quality was good. Harvard it wasn’t, but even Harvard wasn’t Harvard 150 years ago.

Nonetheless, the basics of the model are and remain pretty much the same in public higher education in the 21st century. But today it does not have to be that way; in fact, it cannot be that way. Not only can’t we afford it, but many innovations, both technical and conceptual, give us the ability to organize public higher education with different models and with possibly better results, including greater cost-effectiveness. And all this while keeping the basic noble aims of public higher education as access to the heritage of the human spirit for all who qualify.

As I was saying last month, what if we added another explicit aim for public higher education — strengthening our social fabric here in Maine? I think we could start to put all these pieces of the public higher education puzzle together in ways that could reinvigorate it and serve our state.

But right now, it’s the holiday weekend, and I recommend that we all enjoy it.

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

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