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Unique Mission Stabilizes UMM's Place as Environmental Liberal Arts Leader

Added on: January 11, 2013
Tora Johnson, Director of UMM's GIS Service Center
Tora Johnson, left, instructs a student in computer mapping at UMM's
Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Service Center.

MACHIAS, Maine – For small towns along Maine’s Downeast coast, a partnership with the University of Maine at Machias has helped them comply with complicated state zoning regulations. Students in Tora Johnson’s classrooms have helped create shoreland zoning maps and related software. They have also assisted in the creation of comprehensive plans, an invaluable aid to cash-strapped communities.

But the students are the real beneficiaries, maintains Johnson, director of the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Service Center at UMM. “For students, these are real, practical applications of their classroom work, and a great bridge between the University and the towns,’’ she said.

UMM is the only public Environmental Liberal Arts college in the Northeast, a mission launched five years ago and one that has kept enrollment stable, despite a tough economic climate.

“We went in this direction for two main reasons,” UMM President Dr. Cynthia Huggins said. “The more pragmatic reason is because a small public college needs a niche. We asked ourselves ‘What makes us different?’ and we realized that we already had a strong environmental flavor just by where we are. Since there was already an organic interest, we needed to capitalize on that.”

UMM began as a liberal arts teaching college in 1909 and evolved in the 1950s after it became part of the state university system.

Huggins said there is currently much questioning of the value of a liberal arts education but she believes a liberal arts education prepares the students not to have a single vocation or their first job, but rather it prepares them for life. “Environmental Liberal Arts makes it practical for the 21st century by infusing the traditional liberal arts education with the environmental component,” she said.

Randall Kindleberger, associate professor of history at UMM, said the environment is a key issue of the current generation of college students. “Here we bring the two elements - liberal arts and the environment - together to help students understand their connection to the world and motivate them. Our students are aware of their responsibility to the world outside our campus and they want the tools to understand the issues and be effective,” she said.

Huggins said she doesn’t want the public to get the impression that the UMM students and faculty are “tree huggers.” “We are focusing on the natural environment but we blend in the cultural, social, and economic environments,” she said - just the type of work Johnson’s students are involved in.

Beyond comprehensive planning and shoreland zoning assistance for local communities, Johnson’s specialty is political ecology, which - through conflict management - helps communities communicate and work more efficiently.

“UMM is a great place to do my work,” Johnson said. “It is small and rural and the perfect real-world laboratory.”

Huggins said that with the current economic conditions, the new mission and focus has helped UMM to hold its own in the Northeast. “We have a stable enrollment,” she said.

Key to that success are the strong mutual relationships UMM is building with the local communities and businesses. “We take the small communities around us and really create a bridge for the students,” Huggins said. “We use the towns and businesses as a lab for learning and the students love it. This immersion gives them skills that they can not only use here, but are transferable anywhere.”

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