Today it’s called the University of Southern Maine, but that hasn’t always been the case.

Once it was known the Gorham Normal School and later Gorham State Teachers College. In 1970 it merged with the university that started as Portland Junior College and became the University of Maine Portland-Gorham (with the unfortunate nickname “Po-Go”) before becoming USM in 1978.

Each time the name was changed to reflect changes inside the university and in the world outside.

That’s why it’s time to change the name again, this time to the University of Maine at Portland.

With its campuses in Portland, Gorham and Lewiston-Auburn, USM is located in the state’s population and commercial center. It rivals the University of Maine in Orono for the university system’s biggest enrollment, granting advanced degrees in education, engineering, business, law and public policy.

A lot has changed in the four decades since the last time USM changed its name.

Maine has become the oldest state in the country, with a median age of 44.3, meaning half the population is older and can’t be expected to produce many children. Every year the number of Mainers who graduate from high school gets smaller, shrinking the supply of potential college students.

USM could plan to shrink over time, preparing to cut costs and eliminate programs as the enrollment declines, but that would be bad news for the region’s economy, which depends on USM graduates to serve in a broad variety of important jobs. Fortunately, the university’s administration is not planning on shrinking.

Instead, USM President Glenn Cummings says the future relies on the university’s ability to attract students from other states, who not only fill out programs, but generally pay higher tuition, enabling a school like USM offer more scholarships to Maine students.

That’s why the name matters. Market research has shown that out-of-state students would be more likely to consider USM and visit the campus if they knew that it was in Portland, a city which has developed a good reputation in the region as well as nationally. The name University of Southern Maine does not give them the information at first glance that could invite them to take a closer look.

The same survey reached out to high school guidance counselors in other states, who were asked if they would be more or less likely to recommend USM to a student if they knew it was in Portland. More than 80 percent of counselors said they would be somewhat more likely or much more likely to recommend the school if they knew it was in Portland.

Changing the name of the institution would be an important way to connect with this very important group of gatekeepers, giving them a valuable piece of information at a very low cost.

Unfortunately, some people see the proposed name change as a sign of disrespect to other southern Maine communities. Some alumni are unhappy with the idea that the school would have a different name than the one on their diplomas.

But they should consider what could happen to the university they care about if it does not maintain its enrollment in the face of Maine’s demographic challenge. It won’t do any honor to Gorham or Lewiston-Auburn to be served by a shrinking university that only makes news for eliminating programs or laying off staff.

It won’t make a USM diploma more prestigious if the current institution is falling apart.

The university should take advantage of Portland’s national profile and make it easier for potential students to find it.

The institution has changed its name before and it’s time to do it again.


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