Starting in September, I will move into a statewide role at the University of Maine System, as vice chancellor for academic affairs with special responsibility for community engagement.

If you’ve been reading my columns over the past few months, you’ll know that I am going to get a chance to work on some of the things I have been recommending for public higher education in Maine. This is really dangerous for a columnist, to have somebody actually take you seriously enough to let you try to do some of the things you’ve been advocating.

So what can “community engagement” contribute to the enhancement of public higher education in Maine?

How about:

• Addressing higher education costs vs. revenues.

• Providing better educational and career opportunities for our students.

• Helping to repair the social fabric of communities in our state.

We can all endorse these goals. Top of most minds will be the budget. We have to make it balance. Costs can’t exceed revenues over time — that’s the recipe for bankruptcy. But how do you get there? We are way beyond the point when you could just trim off some excess from a basically sound operation and solve the problem.

As I said last time, the current model of public higher education is that it should be Harvard, only supported by the taxpayers and the students. But “Harvard though cheap” doesn’t work financially anymore. After the Great Recession, taxpayers and families can’t afford it, and the demographics we’ve been living through in Maine and much of the country can’t support it either. So what other models could we imagine? Community engagement can provide some ideas.

Meanwhile, let’s consider that second goal. Educational and career opportunities. Most students’ first priority today is a job when they graduate, preferably even before they graduate. Their families would fervently agree!

The common wisdom used to be that if you just went to college and explored your intellectual passions, you would find your calling and the right job would be there. Today, this common wisdom isn’t so common. Public higher education institutions have to pay attention to this current reality.

But wait — Aren’t we supposed to be teaching academic subjects? What about passing on the human heritage? Language. Literature. Science. Art. Engineering. Am I saying public higher education should abandon these things for — gasp, choke — job training?

Let’s be serious here. I’ve spent a lifetime helping students awaken to their intellectual heritage, explore ideas and practice their own ways to join the continuing conversation of humankind within and across times and cultures. I am not likely to advocate that we must abandon these fundamental goals of higher education. But let’s not dead-end ourselves into thinking that there is only one way (the “Harvard but cheap” way) to achieve these goals. Community engagement can help us find others.

And finally, repairing the social fabric. If we keep losing population in Maine, the social fabric will unravel no matter what else we do. What about keeping the current generations of Mainers in Maine, and attracting new populations, with better career opportunities, healthy communities and cultural amenities? Everybody keeps saying that higher education is the key to this successful future, but the conversation always stops right after that. Community engagement ideas can extend the discussion.

So there we are. Public funding is inadequate for all the demands the state is trying to meet. Students want rewarding employment. Our state has a lot of needs and few financial resources.

How does community engagement figure in? Forget for a moment about all the things we don’t have, and remember the wonderful resources we do have.

First, we have our students. They are our greatest “natural resource,” with brain power, gumption, energy and sheer numbers — more than 30,000 in Maine’s public universities and community colleges.

A second resource is location. Public universities and community colleges are all over the state. Our geographic reach is an asset.

Third, we have great faculty and staff, who are already teachers, mentors, advisers and involved Maine citizens.

The last and best resource is our communities: partners from business and industry, health care, social service, government, and arts.

Community engagement, if used intentionally as a central organizing theme, can help public higher education use its resources more sustainably, gain jobs for graduates and help repair the social fabric.

How can this happen? Don’t we already do this stuff? What is that woman smoking? More next time.

Theodora J. Kalikow is vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Maine System and president emerita of University of Maine at Farmington. She can be reached at [email protected]

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