Recently I had the honor of attending a press event at Side x Side, a nonprofit arts organization in Portland that integrates the arts with science, technology, literacy and the humanities.

Side x Side recently received $242,000 in congressionally designated funds, thanks in large part to Sen. Angus King’s office. These funds will support Project M.A.I.N.E., a professional development series for K-12 teachers that promotes the integration of arts into the K-12 curriculum. Side x Side was founded 10 years ago by University of Southern Maine alumna Beth Wilbur Van Mierlo and art professor Kelly Hrenko. USM faculty and staff (including retirees), USM alumni and many community partners and friends of Side x Side attended the announcement.  

This nonprofit arts organization and its programs are one of many examples of the ways in which USM is both in and of the communities where our campuses are located. Partnerships like this demonstrate the value the university can bring to our communities as we engage with priorities and needs, and as we work to effect positive change. It is difficult to quantify the number of children, teachers, parents and community members Side x Side has made a difference to over the past 10 years. This year alone, that number is in the hundreds. 

Partnerships like Side x Side demonstrate that our communities want us to be here. Great universities can only succeed when their communities recognize and support them. USM was founded because the people of Gorham, Portland and Lewiston wanted a university presence in their communities. The Gorham Academy was founded in 1803 because the people in Gorham made it possible. Hugh McLellan, whose brick farmhouse is still on the Gorham campus, donated the land, and townspeople raised $3,000 to build the school.  

The success of public higher education requires trust from the public, and deep commitment from people who recognize their contributions and worth, much like the people of Gorham demonstrated in the late 1800s.

Unfortunately, in many sectors of American society, that trust has waned and support for public higher education is declining. In May, Seth Bodnar, president of the University of Montana, made a case that the long-term devaluing of higher education we are facing in the United States will impact our economic competitiveness, and he claims this decline in support for higher education is the biggest threat to national security our country faces.


President Bodnar observed, a bit incredulously, that prominent business leaders – many of whom hold degrees from highly selective institutions – are telling America’s young people that they do not need a degree to be successful, a point he doubted our international competitors are telling the young people where they are.  

It is well documented that a college degree brings exponential benefit to individuals, both in terms of income and in terms of overall health and well-being. And while I agree that college degrees change lives for the better, I would also argue that college degrees do more than benefit individual people.

College degrees benefit our society as a whole because universities prepare future leaders, thinkers, problem solvers, citizens and keepers of our society and culture. In addition, our universities matter as we contribute to our communities in ways that extend beyond the contributions our individual graduates make. Our partnerships, our research and the many ways we engage with those around us add value. 

Our university has been in southern Maine for 145 years, and it will continue to be here for another 145 years and more if we continue to work intentionally to be relevant to the problems of our day. I applaud Professor Hrenko and others like her who are working hand in hand with community partners to advance education and improve the quality of life in our region, and I will work to ensure USM continues to be a valued community partner.  

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