State Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham: “Portland is a great city, a beautiful city, but (the University of Southern Maine) is a regional university and the new name doesn’t make sense.”
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On Nov. 18, the University of Maine System Board of Trustees voted 10-2 to recommend that the University of Southern Maine, which includes campuses in Portland, Gorham and Lewiston-Auburn, be renamed the University of Maine at Portland.

The trustees sent the recommendation to the Legislature, as was widely reported, for “final” approval.

Less than three weeks later, on Dec. 6, the proposal’s chief advocate, USM President Glenn Cummings, announced the bill would be withdrawn, “pressing pause” to allow “further market research and conversations with community leaders.”

In an interview, Cummings, a former speaker of the Maine House who previously cited a marketing survey showing that out-of-state students were more likely to apply for admission with “Portland” in the three-campus university’s name, said “there’s clearly a need for more education, and that’s hard to do during a short (legislative) session,” such as the one that begins in January.

The bill’s sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, said he thought more discussion would be healthy. 

Neither addressed the abrupt reversal, or reasons for the Legislature’s frosty reception. But there were early signs of trouble even in the trustees’ vote. One of two dissenting votes came from Education Commissioner Pender Makin – a possible sign of Gov. Janet Mills’ stance. 

A rendering of USM’s proposed new Portland student center, part of a $100 million project that would include a 550-room dormitory.

Cummings said attention could now turn to USM’s plans for a new student center and 550-room dormitory on the Portland campus. The $100 million project is slated for occupancy in September 2022.

“Until we finish new student housing, we wouldn’t have any place to put more students anyway,” he said, noting that the Gorham campus, which houses 1,350 students, compared with none in Portland, is at 118 percent of capacity. The delay will allow everyone to get on the same page, he said.

Others aren’t so sure.

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, a USM alumnus now serving his 12th legislative term, is an outspoken critic. After the trustees’ vote, he issued a press release with Reps. Patrick Corey, R-Windham, and Mark Bryant, D-Windham.

Diamond said “wiping out the reference to the entire Southern Maine region and replacing it with Portland is short-sighted and frankly insulting. … There are almost 600,000 people in Southern Maine, most of whom don’t live in Portland, and they don’t deserve to be discarded in such a callous manner.”

After the withdrawal, Diamond took a less fiery tone, but remained opposed.

“Portland is a great city, a beautiful city,” he said, “but this is a regional university and the new name doesn’t make sense.”

Corey said he has a different perspective than Diamond, but also opposes the name change. Corey, a creative director and marketer, worked for USM in 2006, when he helped design its new logo, and wrote the brief for its current “brand.”

Changing a name like USM’s – a constant for four decades – risks “sacrificing the brand,” he said. While a change might attract new students, he said, it could prove unsettling for others – in marketing terms, a “loss of earned equity.”

Professor Lydia Savage, who chairs the university’s Geography-Anthropology Department and is the USM faculty union representative, said there was broad opposition, especially in Gorham.

“This is where the university started in 1861,” Savage said. “We feel we were being erased.”

While Savage credits Cummings for being respectful of faculty and of students – “something that hasn’t always been true of USM presidents” – she said students felt the $1.2 million price tag was far too high. Even reported support from the Alumni Council and Student Government Association was misleading, she said:

“Their boards supported it, but most alumni and students are opposed.”

While Cummings is optimistic the name change will fare better later on, Diamond is skeptical.

“I find it hard to believe students can’t find USM on a map,” he said.

Savage said she’s more concerned about keeping students than recruiting new ones.

“Our retention rate is lower than peer institutions,” she said. “That’s where we ought to start.”

Douglas Rooks has covered Maine issues for 35 years as a reporter, editorial writer, columnist and editor of Maine Times.