USM Corporate Partners PROFILE
By JIM MILLIKEN
If you're into omens, here's one for you:
A Maine-loving couple from Massachusetts is biking on Peaks Island in Casco Bay. They fall in love with a little vacation house they see along the way, and buy it. Two months later, the presidency of the University of Southern Maine opens up, right there on the nearby mainland.
One of the bicyclists is ready to move on from a high position in higher education in New York City. She applies for the position in Portland . . . and a year later here she is, Dr. Selma Botman, 10th president of the University of Southern Maine.
The new president, now into her busy third month at USM, is writing and speaking in a variety of venues about her intentions for managing the institution's immediate financial and academic concerns, as well as its longer-term strategic direction. As part of that process, she will address "The 21 st Century USM" at the Sept. 9 Business before Breakfast program of USM Corporate Partners.
Her overall view of the university resonates with what has long been said by leaders of both the community and USM:
"I believe deeply that the public university should see itself as indispensable to the community in which it sits, to the region in which it sits. It should educate the student to go into the community as deeply educated as possible. So it should look periodically at its offerings. Do they satisfy student interests? Do they satisfy workforce needs?"
Dr. Botman is an accomplished academic, a constant that underpins a long list of administrative accomplishments as vice president for academic affairs and chief academic officer for the University of Massachusetts System; special assistant to the chancellor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell; and executive vice chancellor and university provost for the 230,000-student City University of New York System.
She held a full professorship with tenure along with each staff position, in political science and, in New York , history. She holds degrees from Harvard, Oxford and Brandeis, and plans to teach some classes after a period of settling in at USM.
Personal history influences philosophy
Her fundamental convictions about education are shaped by her experience as a young girl in Chelsea, where her father's longtime job in a shoe factory abruptly disappeared, leaving him ill-equipped to support his family in a changing world. She sees the university's essential function as preparing the student to succeed in such an environment, which includes working with the employers to ensure that the academic content matches the needs of the real world.
As a practical matter, Dr. Botman expresses empathy for the situation of the student. "Education changed my life. My teachers, at all levels, challenged me to take risks, and helped me realize my potential. I believe that the success of our students must be at the forefront of everything we do. A college education should transform students' understanding of the world while equipping them with the knowledge and skills to cultivate productive and fulfilling lives after graduation. This is the implicit promise that we make as a university, and it is our obligation to do our best to deliver on that promise."
She is candid about the relative purposes of two-year and four-year institutions: "I am a fan and champion of community college education. It is the place to start for some students. The associate degree will prepare the student for a first job -- but that job might not even be here in five years. The baccalaureate degree is for lifetime employment. The liberal education gives the graduates the skills and judgment they need to pursue lifetime careers."
In defining what the student is to get from the university experience, Dr. Botman also refers to "hands-on experience with the world" and adds, "We can't do that without the cooperation of government and the business community. I love having the student take the theoretical work they do in the classroom and put it to work."
She sees a key place for herself in making the university-community partnership work: "The modern president of a university has to be both internal and external. My role is to work with the business community to evaluate what we do. They help me produce the kinds of education we need. They work with the faculty. They point out gaps in what we're offering."
She referred to the industry initiative in the start-up of USM's School of Applied Science, Engineering and Technology, and the seminal role of community leaders such as Kenny Nelson in organizing support for USM beginning in the 1980s. She credits former USM President Rich Pattenaude (now chancellor of the University of Maine System) with enhancing the process after his appointment in 1991, "bringing the university to the community and the community to the university."
The current relationship between USM and the southern Maine community is quite unusual, in Dr. Botman's experience. "I'm impressed with the number of people in the community who have no personal connection to the university --who haven't attended the university and don't have family members who have attended --but who support the university so strongly, philanthropically and by participation."
'It's a privilege to be here.'
The new president's relationship with Maine goes back years, beginning with her husband's representation of workers in food production industries. Thomas Birmingham is a labor lawyer (and former president of the Massachusetts Senate). Later, Megan, the younger of their two daughters, attended Bates College in Lewiston.
As a result, Dr. Botman says, "We spent a lot of time eating our way through Portland , and riding our bicycles in Acadia National Park ." It was Megan who convinced her parents to check out Peaks Island , after Megan visited Bates schoolmates there.
For USM's new president: A challenging academic experience combined with life in a beloved place . . . . "It's a privilege to be here," Selma Botman concludes.