Our Viewpoint: Brains over brand is USM’s best bet

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University of Southern Maine officials last week withdrew a proposal to rebrand the institution as the University of Maine at Portland. 

Facing many challenges, including the declining number of Maine high school graduates, the administrators turned to marketing experts and polling data to enhance the institution’s ability to lure out-of-state students. Officials thought the name change would increase the school’s appeal, seemingly placing branding over substance.

When the renaming proposal first surfaced, proponents of the change initially argued there was confusion with the University of Southern Mississippi, which own the USM.edu website. We would like to think that those who are considering attending USM would quickly discover that it is in Maine, not Mississippi, and factor that into their decisions.  

In a state with limited resources, USM can focus instead on clarifying and defining its mission, so students are attracted for the best reason: that USM offers world-class programs in nursing, history, drama, or whatever they choose to study. Other University of Maine campuses, such as Farmington, have sustained a strong reputation in a particular field, such as training teachers. The University of Maine at Orono is known for its engineering programs. Perhaps USM could take advantage of its urban location to refocus on liberal arts, and fine and lively arts, that could solidify its niche and boost enrollment. Its location could also be an advantage for the graduate programs in business, tourism and others. 

The UMaine system has seemingly tried to be many things to many people, which is part of the mission of a diverse university. But for USM especially, there may need to be a focus on what it can do well. 

Despite this setback, USM is blessed with ambitious leadership that is seeking to improve its value. We urge the legislators who sent a strong message they would fight a name change to sustain funding levels that help USM build a brand based on superior academic programming.