James Herbert of the University of New England discusses the importance of conducting civil discourse and combining career-ready skills with “habits of mind”.

University of New England President James Herbert on the Biddeford campus (Photos courtesy of University of New England)

The best of three worlds exists at the University of New England. Its two central campuses in Maine feature very distinct personalities – one a marine paradise nestled on the ocean in Biddeford and the other a quintessential health-focused campus with a scenic quad in Portland. Its location in spectacular Tangier, Morocco makes for one hell of a study abroad experience that attracts many of its students.

Yet, although it has received pockets of prominence since completing a merger in 1987, it has only really emerged as a top regional institution in recent years. But this small R2 run by graduate and professional students is now the largest private college or university in Maine. It also has the only medical school in the state and the only dental school in northern New England. Its Portland location will soon house a $100 million medical school that will make its health campus the largest in all of New England, even surpassing prestigious institutions in Boston.

James Herbert, who has overseen physical and academic changes as president for the past five years, talks about what makes UNE so unique. “What we’re known for is kind of bridging the gap between professional skills and a solid foundation in the liberal arts and what we call habits of critical thinking,” he says. “We are kind of a weird duck. We don’t fit neatly into any box. From a certain point of view, we look like a small to medium-sized liberal arts college. From another angle, we look like a great health science university. But we offer more added value than any other institution in Maine. »

He notes that UNE is “defying the odds” by increasing enrollment as a private institution in New England, where its competitors are falling about 5%. Indeed, it is preparing to welcome this fall the largest class in its history. Herbert’s infusion of the “marketplace of ideas” concept is helping to drive this growth, as part of a five-year strategic plan at UNE that will culminate next year. “It’s a place where you can do innovative things,” says Herbert. “So many universities are tied to tradition, but we can move quite quickly and do some things outside the box. That’s what I love about being here.

A former Vice Provost and Director of Psychology at Drexel University, he is constantly thinking and tinkering with the next steps for UNE and its place in the world. He spoke before Congress about the national shortage of health care workers and had one of his hundreds of works blessed by the Dalai Lama. As for the future of higher education, he shared a few in a recent conversation with University Affairs. He says his university is working on four critical areas that institutions must adopt to thrive in the coming decades:

Interdisciplinary links: Herbert says, “Real innovations happen at the intersection of disciplines. The problem is that within academia we tend to gravitate toward discipline. You have to constantly mitigate that and find creative ways to break down barriers, break down silos, and get people working together across disciplines. Nowhere are the forces for discipline stronger than in health care. It tends to be very compartmentalized. And that has big implications for our entire healthcare system. That’s what we’re trying to address.

UNE, for example, has adopted a model called interdisciplinary education, or IPE, which breaks down these barriers by placing students in cohorts to learn about different health disciplines. Herbert says the UNE is trying to change the siled culture in clinics and hospitals, where shortages exist but specialists dominate and patients often see a multitude of doctors in a single hospital. “Research shows this model improves patient outcomes, reduces medical errors, and reduces provider burnout.”

Blending Career Readiness with Fundamental Habits of the Mind: On the merits of combining the liberal arts with vocational skills, Herbert says, “If you’re talking to a parent, I don’t care if the child goes to community college or they go to Harvard, they want their child to be prepared with good professional skills. But many colleges shy away from focusing on career skills because they think it’s too technical or below them. This is what students and families are asking for. At the same time, if you’re just preparing students for their first job, you’re really doing them a disservice because the world is changing so fast. You have to be in a constant state of evolution and skill development. We need to instill in students what we call habits of mind to be able to prepare them – things like a deep sense of curiosity, critical thinking, digital literacy, statistical reasoning, cultural humility and communication.

Discourse through differences: UNE has launched several initiatives to try to foster civil dialogue, including the President’s Forum, where it brings speakers with different perspectives to campus on the same stage, as well as a series of similar lectures through its World Center for the Humanities, which deliberately tries to spark dialogue. “Our society has become more politically polarized than at any time since the Civil War,” Herbert says. “We live more and more in ideological bubbles. People live in these alternate realities. We have lost trust in institutions. We have lost the sense of common values. Above all, we have lost the ability to communicate across differences. What is troubling is that this has happened deeply in universities. Universities should be precisely the place where we have these difficult conversations and where we entertain reflections from various angles.

“We planted a flag at UNE and declared that the university should be the ultimate marketplace for ideas. We have an obligation to create an environment where we have difficult conversations, but we do so in a constructive way. We say, be nice and be thoughtful and civil, but don’t shy away from having solid conversations about race, gender identity, and most burning issues. One of the big things I’ve done with deans and professors is that when they’re put off by the students, we support them, as long as they do it in good faith. I think more presidents need to go public and make that statement.

Leverage technology: Herbert says there are positives and negatives to the ongoing technology-related transformation in institutions. “There are some really cool tools on the horizon that are going to be very powerful. But there’s also a dark side. Social media can be a very dangerous tool if you’re not careful. There’s a whole contingent of professors who have become accustomed to doing everything over Zoom. So there is an erosion of the office culture. We are starting to see the negative effects of this. Certainly the elbows are getting sharper. Collaboration is more difficult. As we As we move closer to generalized AI, we’re going to face all sorts of ethical things that we need to think about now. We need to figure out how to use technology to our advantage and anticipate the negative effects.

Working towards these goals, Herbert has high aspirations for his own campuses. “We have just revamped our undergraduate program and the integration of career-ready skills that will allow us to reframe the Biddeford campus as a more traditional residence. Once we move medical school [to Portland], this is going to be a game changer in terms of our ability to really take the IPE model to the next level. Currently, every student who comes to UNE Health Sciences receives IPE training. But I want it to be much deeper. I want every student who comes here to also receive extensive training in telehealth. I believe we can become the national leader in health education to address the issues of rural and aging populations.


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