Gov. Paul LePage's veto of a $20 million bond for R&D this spring was criticized by both Democratic and Republican lawmakers. Many business leaders, well aware that Maine's investment in R&D is one-third of the U.S. average and one-sixth of the New England average, expressed disappointment in the governor's decision.
So it was an obvious question to ask UMaine Chancellor James Page: If he had the chance to sit down with the governor, what would he tell him about the relationship of R&D spending, either through a bond or through the General Fund, to the university system and to Maine businesses?
Page's reply was diplomatic, planting him squarely in the middle of the debate regarding LePage's R&D veto:
"I think everybody understands the value of R&D," he says. "The question is: Are we getting the right return?
"So in terms of the governor or any political leadership demanding a very thorough account of how these dollars are being spent — whether they route directly to a business or whether they route to a nonprofit or a university, and then whether the seed money provided to R&D eventually returns through businesses to the taxpayer — you could make good cases that both are appropriate.
What is critical is that we have a good solid accountability, because if we are going to continue to ask the taxpayers for more and more money, we have to show that it issues in patents and intellectual property that further more research, or which brings more money into the state in various forms … and in jobs. Are they actually being commercialized and turned into jobs? In a small state like ours, where $20 million is a lot of money, I think we need to be right down at the level of demonstrating that in 'Place A' that spending created 25 jobs and in 'Place B' it created a patent that will create some business opportunities and in 'Place C' it preserved the ability of an industry to stay in its lead position."
Implicit in Page's answer is the notion that recipients of R&D funding need to do a better job of showing Mainers how there has been a solid return on R&D investment. He cited the composites industry and wind power technology as two R&D areas that seem to offer tangible benefits to Maine industries.
"Take offshore wind power," he says. "This could be an enormous economic boon, if and when it's fully developed in the Gulf of Maine — of course doing it in a way that protects the fisheries, which are of equal importance to our state's economy. Assuming that is done, the work that has been done and is being done at [University of Maine's Advanced Structures & Composites Center] … that work could drive enormous, enormous investments to the benefit of this state."
James H. Page Chancellor of the University of Maine System
Education: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ph.D. Department of Linguistics and Philosophy; St. Andrews University (Scotland), master's in philosophy; University of Maine, Fort Kent, B.A. in history
While many people know of James Page's professional history with James W. Sewall Co., they are less familiar with his academic appointments. A summary:
1990 Teaching fellow Harvard University
1990-1992 Visiting assistant professor Department of Philosophy, Dartmouth College
1991 Visiting assistant professor Department of Philosophy, Macalester College
1992–1998 Assistant professor Department of Philosophy, University of Kansas
2001–2012 Principal and CEO of James W. Sewall Co. Working with The ConnectME Authority to assemble the first statewide map and database of available broadband services; partnering with the University of Maine DeepCWind Consortium to complete comprehensive geospatial database of the Gulf of Maine; and developing with the Maine Institute for Human Genetics and Health a map pairing social and environmental data with genetic data for use in cancer research in Maine.
1998–now Adjunct associate professor Department of Philosophy, University of Maine
Appointed as chancellor of the University of Maine System in March, James Page comfortably wears two hats — one labeled "business" and the other "academia." As the top administrator of the seven-campus university system, he brings to that role more than 10 years of experience as principal and CEO of James W. Sewall Co., a 131-year-old professional services consulting firm based in Old Town that specializes in forestry, engineering, geospatial science and environmental science. He's also an academic, whose teaching credits include the University of Maine's philosophy department, Dartmouth College and Harvard.
Just one month into his new job, speaking at a Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce breakfast, Page bluntly linked the university system's fortunes to those of his native state, saying: "The university system cannot succeed — will not succeed — if Maine doesn't succeed," according to a report in the Bangor Daily News.
How those two linked goals might be accomplished, not surprisingly, was a common thread in an interview with Mainebiz conducted at Page's office in downtown Bangor. The following is an edited transcript:
Mainebiz: Has your business background given you insights or approaches to being the "CEO" of a university system you might not have had if your background had been only academic?
James Page: I think so. There is a stereotype out there that when business people serve, either in positions like mine or on boards, that they try to import a profit-and-loss model into academia. And while everyone is concerned about the bottom line, I don't think that's the primary strength. I think the core value that people with experience like mine bring to the academic setting is our familiarity and experience with what it takes to build teams to implement plans. Implementation is a very hard thing to do properly, and most efforts to evolve or change systems fail, not because people don't have good ideas but because they're not experienced in developing the engagement with their people to implement those changes. I think that's the strongest piece that business brings to an academic setting.
The second piece, which is very important as well, is a familiarity with the business and social environments of this state. So that piece centers around work-force needs, around what people, who are investing through their tax dollars, expect of the university system in terms of meeting the needs of businesses for well-trained individuals who are well-prepared for all of their careers, not just the beginning.
I understand you are the first native Mainer to be in this position.
(Laughing). I was very surprised to find that out — that I was the first native Mainer. I was a little bit shocked. I'm very proud to be the first Mainer, but it adds an extra sense of responsibility. Maine people in general are very familiar with the items common to businesses throughout our society but also those that are common to businesses in this state — in terms of our history, our core strengths, our weaknesses. So there is a bit of a special responsibility in terms of building on that knowledge to engage, and engage properly, with our businesses here in Maine.
You had a challenge early on, the faculty's no-confidence vote involving USM President Selma Botman. After that vote, you pledged to work with both sides to move forward. Can you tell us how things stand now and what you see coming out of that?
The biggest positive coming out of that was the degree to which all parties — internal to the campus community and external in the business community and in the greater Portland community — are incredibly engaged, supportive of and concerned about the University of Southern Maine. That's very rewarding.
Now, as you have seen from the headlines, there are different opinions as to how the USM community moves forward, how that can be optimized. We are continuing to work with all the parties — a bit quietly now, it's in the summer — to get those issues worked through and to get the university fully engaged in doing those things it has to do. It has to be responsive to the community.
Are there other examples you might provide about initiatives in the UMaine system?
The initiatives I'm engaged with at the moment are broad and very system-wide. If you read them and study them, you will see that they are a road map for significant change.
In the May board of trustees meeting we settled on three priority projects to focus on. That has to do with a comprehensive system-wide review of administration; a development of system-wide performance metrics that we can use to guide investments; and the credit-transfer issue, enhancing credit transfers between the campuses and also between the community college system and the university system. With those initiatives you get a very strong picture of where the trustees are going and what my charge is.
How is the new Southern Maine Community College campus at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station working, with respect to offering an engineering-degree track through the University of Maine in Orono and eventually a master's degree?
That's the plan, and it's still in a fairly early stage and we haven't got its feet on the ground, as it were. But the general strategy behind it is exactly right.
You've been quoted saying the particular challenges the university system faces here in Maine are largely demographic: We have an aging population, fewer young people are graduating from our high schools. Could you talk about that?
First of all, most areas of the country are undergoing a demographic challenge … certainly in the Northeast. A report that we commissioned a couple of years ago shows that you have to go down to Maryland and out to Indiana before you find the trend line of high school graduates growing.
But in Maine, they are particularly acute for two reasons: 1.) We have a small population, so any time a percentage shifts here, it means more impact than, say, you'd see in a state like New York. Unless something odd happens, the decline in graduating high school students in Maine from 2010 to 2020 is 19.5%. So, this is really significant. 2.) The other demographic factor, of course, is the population that we do have is an old and aging population.
One of the opportunities we have, however — and one of the really shocking figures to me — I've gotten two numbers around this and I have to find out which one it actually is. But the point is made for either number. The lower number is 170,000 and the higher number is 250,000. Those are the numbers of Maine citizens who have some measure of post-secondary education — it might be a single course, or it might be a course shy of graduation. In other words, those who do not have a degree, or certificate, that would give them a return on the investment. That's enormous.
If we reach out and engage a reasonable percentage of those people, the opportunity for the university system is enormous. The ability to move those families forward economically, with numbers that large, is enormous … not to mention the opportunity to move their communities and ultimately the state forward.
Now there are some special challenges involved. Many of these people are employed in full-time jobs, they have families, they're not about to uproot themselves and move 75 miles to a campus. We have to find ways of delivery that can help them with this, but in this day and age with the technology we have, that's going to be a priority.
And ways of delivery include online or ITV (interactive televised) courses?
Yes. They would include online, they would be the outreach centers we have throughout the state…
Such as University College in Bath?
Yes. Also in Houlton, Rockland, Rockport and western Maine … there are nine of them.
So these are located where people who might be lacking a four-year degree could take a class or two at night, or online at home?
Online with an occasional visit to these centers … there's all kinds of ways to combine that. And I think there is an enormous opportunity for us all in getting to these folks and helping them to move their education forward.
One of the challenges of the UMaine system is its seven campuses are scattered across the state. What are your thoughts on that?
I am a big supporter of regional campuses. I have no interest, no intent, of advocating for the closing of any of our campuses. I think they perform in addition to their educational function; they have a social and economic function in their regions that you can't replace and are really critical. I think they can be managed differently, we can leverage our resources differently, especially given these technologies. If we have a first-class environmental scientist in Fort Kent, why can't they offer a course online or via video-conferencing, or one of these different methods, to students who are taking an environmental course in Machias?
In a state of 1.4 million people, we've got seven campuses, we have a number of community colleges, we've got the Maine Maritime Academy. Rather than just continue to think of them as 'silos' that have to be built up on, we have to think of ways of leveraging them across the state.
I'm wondering if you have had any concerns from folks who are well aware of your business background but might not be aware of your academic background?
Business people have lots of stereotypes of academics and academics have lots of stereotypes of business people. And when you are first in a room, when people are uncomfortable and don't know each other, those stereotypes come out. But you will be surprised how quickly those melt away once a real dialogue gets going. We're talking minutes, not days.
So having the conversation and finding the common ground is key?
Common ground, if you really get beyond the sound bites and the stereotypes, and you really begin to look seriously at the interests of the two parties, they overlap so very very much.
What's the secret about the UMaine system that you'd love to tell the world?
Just one? (Laughing)
I think that the University of Maine system, its campuses, its extension service — which was the first part of the University of Maine I ever knew about, growing up in Aroostook County — the outreach centers, the laboratories on the coast, the conversation hasn't kept [pace] with what an incredible asset this is for the state. It's really unique. In New York or Illinois or other places, there are other entities or organizations that play a lot of these roles. In Maine, the university system fulfills those roles.
That means it's also incumbent upon us, not just me, but all of the leadership, both administrative and academic, to show people, to engage them in that discussion, and not just tell them, 'Hey, we're the greatest,' but rather, 'Yes, there are these great things we're doing, but we want to enter into a partnership with you.' Because the UMaine system is an asset to the state, to all of the businesses and people of Maine, so that dialogue has to evolve to get those needs out there and to get a good feedback loop going.
Not simply for work-force training and business development. This goes right down to the extension service working with the needs of communities in food development, canning classes, these are incredibly valuable and important. And when people realize the ways in which the university is involved — and could be and should be involved in their communities, including the classroom and beyond the classroom — there's worlds of opportunities.
Does business have a role to play?
Absolutely. Business leadership, because of the economic pressures we're under and because of the role business plays in moving Maine forward, faces most of the issues we've talked about. I'll go out on a limb here: Jobs are the answer to many of our challenges in this state. And the people who are creating those jobs, who are investing and building the opportunities for those jobs — the business leaders of this state — have a critical role to play in how the university system, and therefore the state, evolves.
How different is this job from your previous one at Sewall?
The commonality is that whether you are in a business or you are in an entity like a large educational institution, it's still all about the people, the quality of the people, their engagement, their commitment. In both cases, it's exactly the same. And you are only as good as your people.
I just have a lot more of them here.