State of the University Address

Joan Ferrini-Mundy, President of the University of Maine and its regional campus, the University of Maine at Machias

Written remarks

Welcome to our distinguished visitors, our University of Maine and University of Maine at Machias Boards of Visitors, and University of Maine System Board of Trustees members and UMS leadership, and to our outstanding faculty, staff, deans and directors, and to members of the President’s Cabinet. Let me express my special appreciation to Dr. Kimberly Whitehead, the President’s chief of staff, who is helping us to reinstate some of these important annual traditions of higher education, beginning with last fall’s Convocation and now this State of the University address. I am also pleased to see many alumni and community members here. And, to all at our regional campus in Machias, welcome and thanks for tuning in.

I want to take the time to affirm that our thoughts are — and have been — with the University of Maine at Machias community following yesterday’s disturbing and unsettling news from Washington County. During this difficult time, UMaine and UMM community members are here for each other, standing in solidarity and support. The safety and well-being of members of the Machias community are foremost in our hearts and minds. Our thoughts and prayers are with all who have been affected by the tragedies.

Students — you are the reason for our university. Thank you for taking the time to join us, in the auditorium or remotely, and for being interested in the state of your University of Maine. I am glad that you are the embodiment of the university in 2020.

Saturday marked the beginning of Black History Month, which has as its national theme “African Americans and the Vote.” This year is the 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment, which gave African American men the right to vote. We all can be proud that on Feb. 1, Washington Monthly released a nationwide honor roll of colleges and universities that score high on the work of encouraging their students to vote. UMaine is on that honor roll. Our UMaine UVote initiative is working. I thank Lauri Sidelko and many others for their important efforts.

Today, I am asking everyone in our community to reaffirm and redouble their commitment to, and active promotion of, the inclusive excellence that defines a successful university. Through Student Life, with Vice President Robert Dana’s leadership, we are working with partners all across the campuses to define inclusive excellence. Led by our director for diversity and inclusion Anila Karunakar, the Center for Diversity and Inclusion and its organizations — the Multicultural Student Center, the Rainbow Resource Center, and the Intersectional Feminist Resource Center — are all working to support students while bringing the critically important realities of inclusive excellence to our students, faculty and staff. They join many other efforts happening in units and groups across the campuses and community.

The strength and centrality of diversity and inclusion are a highest value for me. Effective today, Dr. Dana’s title will be expanded to reflect that. Please acknowledge our vice president for Student Life and inclusive excellence, and dean of students Robert Dana. V.P. Dana will join with me, director Karunakar, the President’s Cabinet, and many passionate and effective partners all across the campuses to ensure that the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion are central to our thinking and central to who and what we are, and to our actions, as a university. To this end, I will soon charge a Commission on Inclusive Excellence, to reflect on and make central the critical nature of this work and the many efforts occurring on campus. They will recommend how to assure that equity, all voices, and the importance of every person is central to everything we do. Inclusivity is a high value and a just approach to community life. We must commit to inclusive excellence not only as something to celebrate, not only as something that we value, but indeed, as the core that defines the University of Maine.

Higher education is seen by many as slow, bureaucratic, overly focused on process, reluctant to change, and, frankly, not very nimble. However, higher education is society’s primary institution for influencing the future.

Christa McAuliffe, the teacher from New Hampshire who died in the tragic Challenger explosion in 1986 while pursuing her dream to go to space, said: “I touch the future, I teach.”

Universities are one of the few institutions in our society that are explicitly about the future. How amazing and energizing is it that we in universities can absolutely rely, year after year, on the transformation of our institutions that comes when about one fourth of our main constituents leave their mark at UMaine and move on, and are replaced by another brand new group, ready to spend time with us and forge their own pathways?

To survive and to thrive we must be dynamic, ambitious and future-oriented, while of course preserving and sustaining the most valued foundations. Universities function as change agents. That’s why presidents often have change agendas. And I do.

Our greatest collective accomplishment in the last academic year was the completion of the Strategic Vision and Values initiative — our new strategic plan. The work of then Provost Jeffrey Hecker and the team he led in 2018–2019 was inclusive and excellent, and brought in ideas from across the campus and beyond. They produced a clear, bold vision that is the frame for our future.

And this year, under the leadership of Interim Provost Faye Gilbert and with Senior Associate Provost Jeff St. John, all of you are filling in this frame by painting images of the actions we will take to achieve the ambitious goals of the plan. Look at the plan’s website, and you will see that there are goals, subgoals, and specific objectives that came from the collective conversations across our campuses.

That’s where you all come in. The next level invites action plans — the implementation of our framework — to be populated by campus teams, groups, departments, centers or others who come together around an action that would advance us toward a goal. Our three strategic values are: Fostering Learner Success, Discovering and Innovating, and Growing and Advancing Partnerships. And, inclusive excellence is what will propel us ahead.

Last year I used the ideas of convergence, connection and commitment in my inaugural speech. (It wasn’t just nice alliteration, although it was pretty good!) Many months later I am pleased to assure you that the state of the University of Maine and our regional campus is strong because we model convergence, we value connections and we demonstrate commitment.

I would like to offer some highlights about where we are, and where we are going, in fostering learner success.

This fall we welcomed 10,089 undergraduates and 2,131 graduate students at UMaine and our regional campus at Machias, hailing from 50 states and 79 nations. Sixty-six percent of our combined student body is from Maine. On the academic side, our students have access to about 115 undergraduate degrees and over 100 master’s or doctoral degrees. Combined, the campuses also offer about 30 certificates.

In student life we have nearly 200 active student and Greek organizations.

At UMaine, we have been able to provide 86% of degree-seeking undergraduate students with grant or scholarship support. For first-time, full-time students, that percentage is 99%.

At the graduate level, 87% of degree-seeking, full-time graduate students are supported by scholarships, fellowships or assistantships.

We are a welcoming university with a wide range of high-quality opportunities.

Our enrollment management professionals are making extraordinary efforts continuously to bring us entering classes of diverse students with the best promise of thriving at UMaine and UMM. We are accelerating our efforts to engage all of you in being part of the extended team to bring students to UMaine, and to help them succeed here. Our inclusive excellence core is our best asset.

In terms of the state of the university and our future, there are two key indicators that we all must watch that relate to fostering learner success.

The first is student credit hours (SCH) — the total number of credits for which the student body enrolls in a given semester. And, in this fiscal year, and for the next, we face challenges. Our SCHs are flattening and our projections continue that trend. So we need to come together — to act convergently — for the future of our university and to enable more students to have the chance to succeed here. We all need to be enrollment ambassadors, and to tell the story of the great experiences and opportunities at UMaine and our regional campus.

Our students are learning through connections on ice fields in Alaska in a summer field course and in the rocky intertidal zone of Maine’s coast in Semester by the Sea. They are researching media spots for the state bicentennial and helping preserve Maine’s past in archaeology field school and in the Maine shell middens project. They are fast-tracked to Tufts Medical School in the Maine Track Early Assurance program, they are working with policy leaders in Augusta and on Capitol Hill, and collaborating on NASA projects. They are taking advantage of Bloomberg terminals and other cutting-edge technology in labs ranging from TeachLivE and VEMI to Wheatland Geospatial. UMaine and UMM students plug into internships, fellowships, co-ops and a wide range of opportunities for community engagement and service learning. And all UMaine and UMM experiential learning is led by world-class faculty committed to mentoring and actively engaging students in research and scholarship.

Part of building up our SCH is offering programs that are relevant to our iGen students as well as our returning professionals, and to the state of Maine and its people — programs that offer our learners pathways toward meaningful employment. Or, as our colleague President Clayton Spencer at Bates College would say, to “purposeful work.”

Our MaineMBA was ranked just last month as a top 50 online program by U.S. News & World Report. The MBA team, through the Portland-based UMaine Graduate and Professional Center, is developing new concentrations in sustainability, health care management, and engineering management, in direct response to what we are hearing from business leaders in Maine. I congratulate Dean Michael Weber and all of his colleagues for demonstrating how to be nimble and how to respond to what our state is asking. This is good for learners, good for Maine, and, frankly, good for our bottom line. We are seeing large increases in enrollment in the MBA. Thanks to all involved, and I look forward to seeing more of this.

We are responsive to community needs and opportunities across our campuses. In partnership with Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center, UMaine is launching a new graduate certificate program — Maine Arts & Humanities in Medicine. This exciting new program will bring together medical professionals and graduate students to focus on the intersection of arts, humanities and medicine.

We are also working to find the best ways to respond to the need for nursing professionals in Washington County. We have identified several very promising and viable pathways to implementing nursing at UMM and will announce a nursing summit to be held in Machias soon.

At the end of April we will break ground (whether it has thawed or not!) for the new E. James and Eileen P. Ferland Engineering Education and Design Center — the first new building on the Orono campus since the Emera Astronomy Center in 2014. Did you know that 28% of our buildings on campus are more than 50 years old? With state-of-the art learning and “connecting” spaces, this building will embody our commitment to preparing engineers for the future who can collaborate, solve “wicked” problems, and create the new tools and techniques for tomorrow. The EEDC is about fostering learner success.

Retention — how many students return to the university after their first year, and after their second year — is the second key indicator I wish to highlight.

Students who come to our university are here to embark on a journey that not only shapes their future, but shapes us as a university. A university is the collection of the people who are with us at any moment. Thus our commitment to our students must define all we do.

The UMaine average retention rate from the first to second year over the past three years is 76%. For UMM, the average is about 56%. Nationally, for universities in the UMaine and UMM peer groups, the rates are about 81% and 64%, respectively. The retention rate does vary by college and other factors, but we must increase it. We owe that to our students; we must foster their success.

This past fall we announced the First Year Student Success Initiative, the culmination of efforts last year involving more than 1,000 faculty, staff and students to generate actions to help all of our students find their pathways to success. And part of that means doing all we can to help those students return. You can find the details under action in the Strategic Vision and Values website.

The University of Maine System, under the leadership of our new chancellor, Dan Malloy, is finding tools to help us. For example, the System changed the “gap” limit in place for when students with outstanding balances can register. Now, instead of being blocked from registering with an outstanding balance as low as $100, the new limit is $1,000, and UMaine and UMM have implemented that change. We hope that helps students stay.

In December 2019, Chancellor Malloy put in place a “Make the Grade” initiative to help fall 2019 first-year students who failed one course by giving them the opportunity to retake the course at no tuition, and UMaine and UMM have implemented that option. We have about 70 students taking us up on that.

Our UMaine data show that, in the past, only about 59% of first-year, first-time students who receive an F in their first semester return for their second year. We are watching the Make the Grade initiative closely to see if it makes a difference.

I talked recently with some of our students who are taking advantage of this “re-do” opportunity. They told me that part of their challenge was making good use of the help — tutoring, office hours and problem sessions — available in their courses. I am certain that, in their second run through those courses, they will use that help, and I look forward to seeing them as they make their way toward commencement.

Research tells us that one of the major reasons students leave a university is a poor experience in their first-year courses. We are looking at data now for courses that have made transformations in instruction or curriculum and whose DFWL rates are decreasing as a result. If you are interested in this, come to the Academic Affairs Faculty Forum on Best UMaine Practices in Reaching and Retaining Students, next Thursday, Feb. 13, at 3 p.m. in the Wells Conference Center.

I want to commend our Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning, led by Dr. Peter Schilling, for its vital role in fostering learner success. CITL supports faculty members and graduate students who wish to learn about, experiment with, adopt, and assess new approaches to teaching and learning. So far this academic year, 221 faculty have attended CITL professional development workshops and 158 faculty have worked with CITL instructional designers on 233 courses. Now a little over halfway through the academic year faculty have already worked with CITL to create 1,058 videos for their online and face-to-face courses.

Engagement is key to retention. In keeping with my Fostering Learner Success through Teaching and Learning theme this year, we are working to give shape to the idea of Research Learning for all undergraduates. By this I mean experiential or problem-based learning that engages the learner in an authentic experience of research, scholarship or creative production.

One stellar example of this is the work done by Professors Sally Malloy and Melissa Maginnis in phage genomics, a course offered to first-year Honors College students. The students collect and culture novel bacteriophages or viruses; they isolate DNA from the phage and sequence its genome. They even make videos to promote their phages. Thank you, students Lauren Cusson and Libbee Currie, for sharing your video with visitors from the Legislature this fall!

Students in Professor Bernie Vinzani’s book arts studio at UMM gain experiences creating beautiful books.

And at Downeast Institute, Brian Beal and his UMM students are helping the Maine clam fisheries figure out how to be as productive as possible.

Our students engage in authentic scholarly and creative arts experiences in courses, in the field, in labs, in teaching, in art studios and music performances, in capstone courses, in traditional undergraduate research experiences, in internships, and in co-ops.

Our deans are now doing an inventory of what is already in place, and it is considerable. The literature is clear that the connections that come from research learning are key for retention and for learning.

I would like to be able to announce that all incoming UMaine and UMM students in the fall of 2021 will have access to a high-quality research learning experience in their first year. We all must work together to make this happen, and I hope that it can. It is about fostering learner success.

We need to “bend the curve” as they say, on our retention numbers, rapidly, for the sake of our students. All of us need to figure out what we can do as individuals to help, and do our part.

For my part, I will be visiting sections of Math 122 this semester in our active learning classroom in Estabrooke. I believe I successfully helped a student draw a vector describing a burning candle scenario on his graph paper last week. Thank you to mathematics faculty Natasha Speer, Tim Boester and Todd Zoroya and to the Math 122 students for welcoming me back to the mathematics classroom.

Historically, the UMaine four-year graduation rate had ranged from 33% to 40%. The most recent four-year graduation rate, which includes the first group of students to receive four years of messaging from the Think 30 campaign, is 41%. The four-year rates for our peer institutions hover around 40%.

Completed first-year applications for fall 2020 for UMaine and UMM combined are up 4%, indicating we are on track to bring in over 2,260 incoming first-year students.

But bigger enrollments and improved retention are only part of the story, and the ongoing investments we must and should make in our people — our “human capital” — through salary increases, student financial aid and other supports, are part of the equation.

We are at the early stages of planning the FY21 budget, and I must be clear with you that balancing everything will be a challenge. Our first campus budget forum laid out the situation in December, where we told the campus at that time that UMaine faced a gap of about $15 million. We are continuing to work on realignments, including reductions and decisions not to fill some lines that will come vacant this year, to address this. We will be collaborating with the central administration, the deans and directors, and the Senate and Assembly going forward, to establish strategic priorities for investment, and also areas of disinvestment, for the future.

The University of Maine is a land, sea and space grant university — the public university system flagship and the state’s only public research university. As a land grant university our mission has a special, historic context. As I said at my inauguration a little less than a year ago: “We work with the people, businesses and government of the state of Maine to advance our well-being together. I think about these responsibilities every day, and am so proud of how well our university does at enacting them.”

Discovering and Innovating is our second strategic value.

We were founded in 1865 as the Maine State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts. We have come a long way in 155 years in the mission of being in synergistic relationships with the state, and beyond, in engaging in fundamental research, applied and use-inspired research, experimental development and commercialization.

The University of Maine has a thriving research and development enterprise. In just one year (FY18 to FY19) our research expenditures, meaning the dollars, from external and internal sources, that our researchers spent on research, rose by 6% to $137 million. This is a 74% increase in total research expenditures over 2016. We involve hundreds of students in research labs and in the field, and our research enterprise creates jobs for Maine.

With colleagues from across the System, I led the development of a five-year strategic plan for research and development for the University of Maine System, delivered to the Board of Trustees last spring. UMaine then took the lead in the implementation of one of the report’s major recommendations by calling for proposals on the critical statewide, and interdisciplinary grand challenge of rural health and well being. The research to be undertaken by the convergence teams who wrote the three winning proposals will be groundbreaking for Maine. The projects are:

  • University of Maine System Injury Prevention Collaborative (led by Marcella Sorg, UMaine)
  • Expanding Telehealth Training and Use to Support Developmental and Emotional Needs of Children in Rural Maine Schools (led by Kimberley Fox, USM)
  • UMaine Medicine: Addressing Renal Disease, Metabolic Disorders, and Infectious Diseases Among Isolated Populations in Rural Maine (led by Ben King, UMaine)

The projects involve faculty from across UMaine, USM, UMPI, and UMA. Collaborating institutions include Maine CDC, JAX and others.

I want to highlight a few of our outstanding successes in research, scholarship and creative activity in the past year:

  • We received two $20 million awards — a National Science Foundation EPSCoR grant to launch the five-year Maine Environmental DNA (Maine-eDNA) initiative and Department of Energy funding to advance 3D printing with wood products to create a new market for Maine forest products.
  • The visual and performing arts programs in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences enhance the cultural health of the community. In the past academic year, on campus there were close to 100: 12 art exhibits on campus; 34 theatre and dance performances; 48 concerts and recitals on campus, plus pep band performances at 50 hockey and basketball games; and 38 music and theatre performances on tour (off campus, in Maine, all free)
  • Six Climate Change Institute explorers participated in the most comprehensive single scientific expedition on Mount Everest, directed by professor Paul Mayewski
  • Three Guinness world records were set for the world’s largest prototype polymer 3D printer, the largest solid 3D-printed object and the largest 3D-printed boat, right here in Orono at the Advanced Structures and Composites Center
  • Scholars in the humanities and social sciences are framing and shaping some of the major issues of our day. Sociologist Amy Blackstone, communications professor Judith Rosenbaum, and philosopher Doug Allen all published books in the past year.
  • A protein-lipid connection was discovered by physicist Sam Hess that could help lead to new flu-fighting therapies
  • Just last week we heard the good news that Professor Andre Khalil’s computational approach for early detection of breast cancer has been patented.
  • A small collection of Maine native Edna St. Vincent Millay letters is now available in DigitalCommons@UMaine. The letters, donated by her friend Gladys Niles of Bangor, emphasize her excitement as she begins to succeed as a published poet.

I announce today the UMaine is embarking on the process to achieve “R1 status” in the coming years. This is the coveted Carnegie designation as a “very high research activity doctoral institution.” Currently we are R2. We have outstanding researchers and great doctoral programs, and want to be sure that our research enterprise is strategic, suitably broad for a university of our type and has the support it needs to sustain and grow to be recognized at this higher level. The processes of aiming for this will strengthen what we do. Vice President for Research and Dean of the Graduate School Dr. Kody Varahramyan will lead this effort, reporting directly to the president.

Growing and Advancing Partnerships is our third strategic value.

As the flagship and land grant, the University of Maine is a statewide asset, and I am interested in making sure that we are clear about that in our public messaging. Our deans undertook an important project this fall to document the number of partnerships we have as a university across the state — they came up with a total of over 2,700, in every county. These partnerships are with schools, businesses, health care organizations and nonprofits statewide.

In the greater Portland area alone we count more than 300 partnerships, including several with our sister System campus the University of Southern Maine. There are more than 70 University of Maine-related faculty and staff based in that area, spanning the Cooperative Extension Cumberland County in Falmouth, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, the University of Maine Foundation and Black Bear Athletics.

This includes our faculty research partners in the Graduate School of Biomedical Science and Engineering at the University of New England, the Maine Medical Center Research Institute and more.

Many of you have noted and asked about last week’s announcement of the Roux IDEALS Institute at Northeastern University to be based in Portland. I believe that the infusion of academic innovation that Northeastern University brings, together with the potential of new economic development, will be good for Maine. Soon a team of us will visit Northeastern’s Burlington facilities to continue conversations that we have been in for several weeks now about how we can best forge research faculty, and programmatic partnerships with Northeastern. We have much to learn and also much to bring to the table and I am looking forward to a new level of partnership growing there.

The state of Maine is a vital partner with us and UMaine and UMM deliver enormous value to the state. We were integral to the development of the state’s new 10-year strategic economic development plan. So, too, were the regional economic analyses provided by UMaine economics alumna Angela Hallowell and her adviser Professor Andrew Crawley.

More than a dozen of our faculty and staff are part of the Governor’s Climate Council and I am hearing from state leaders that their contributions and leadership are outstanding, and are shaping the plan.

Our partnerships with the state alone range from advising on K–12 curriculum standards, to disabilities and access, to fisheries policy, to aquaculture advances, and innovation. It is impressive to look at all that we do.

This past fall the University of Maine at Machias and the Downeast Salmon Federation signed a memorandum of understanding to formalize our growing partnership in the vital work of restoring salmon populations in rivers in Down East Maine. I watched students, volunteers and staff at the Salmon Federation carefully doing fin-clipping of juvenile wild Atlantic salmon as part of the effort to study the restoration of this iconic fish in Maine — such a vivid image for me of the connections our universities have with our state.

The flagship is a central part of the University of Maine System, comprising almost half of the total UMS budget. I, along with many UMaine leaders, faculty and students, remain centrally involved in the planning for unified accreditation that was approved by the UMS Board of Trustees last week. I believe this will help to strengthen UMaine partnerships and bring our strongest and best practices to wider scale — but the work will be challenging and ongoing.

We have supporters and advocates everywhere. The University of Maine Foundation has brought in donations amounting to more than 90% of our $200 million target in the Vision for Tomorrow capital campaign. This year alone, through the scholarships coming from the foundation, we provided more than $4 million in aid to UMaine students.

We have a Board of Visitors (BOV) comprising people who commit to providing their time, their experience, and their support to bring us ideas, to advocate for us, to tell us when we are moving off course, and to ask us the hard questions that require us to always come back to our values and mission. One of our BOV members, Owen McCarthy, native of Patten, Maine and (member of the) UMaine class of 2010, is co-founder and president of MedRhythms, a digital medicine company combining sensors, machine learning and algorithms to help people recover from neurological injury or disease. In a true convergence example, Owen and his collaborators, whose backgrounds range from engineering, to music, to AI, to medicine, to business — are working for solutions. Maybe you saw Owen in a Superbowl ad!

UMaine’s partners and networks are deep, wide and vibrant.

The UMaine Alumni Association stays in touch with our more than 109,000 alumni base worldwide and helps keep all of us connected to the “college of our hearts always.” Part of that connection is looking to our alums for the kind of wisdom and perspective that is special because it comes from people with deep and strong commitment to, and love for, the university.

For example, Brown University’s vice president for institutional equity and diversity Shontay Delalue, a double alumna from the class of 2000 and 2003G, is featured now on the Alumni Association website. She said, speaking of her work at Brown: “We’re trying to shift the conversation to say you can’t have excellence and innovation without representation and structural change,” she says. “Historically, higher education was not created for certain individuals, and we need to ensure that the landscape changes in a way that opens access and cultivates supportive environments for individuals from underrepresented groups.” Dr. Delalue’s words will guide us in our own continuing pathway toward inclusive excellence. Dr. Delalue will be the speaker at this year’s UMaine Graduate Commencement.

In conclusion, let me quote from Gov. Janet Mills’ state of the state address, delivered in Augusta on Jan. 21. She said, in speaking of the history of the state of Maine and its struggles and challenges in its 200 years as a state, that “Through it all, we have been lifted up by the courage, conviction and resilience that comes from loving a place and its people. That resilience defines our history. That resilience will define our future.”

There is much to celebrate and I have only been able to highlight a fraction of the positive news. We also have challenges and we are taking them on with characteristic Maine ingenuity, resilience and persistence.

At the University of Maine and the University of Maine at Machias, there is so very much to be proud of. Through our students, our faculty, and our extended communities, our institutions are making their mark, in Orono, in Machias, in Maine, in the nation and in the world.