Tried and True
At the University of Maine, President Susan Hunter is a steadfast steward.
In late October, University of Maine President Susan Hunter was loading her car for the trip back to Orono after an overnight stay in Portland. A young woman and her father approached her, having spotted the UMaine hockey jacket Hunter was wearing. The woman had just been admitted to the university for nursing, and offered a Flagship Match, a financial package introduced in 2015 to entice academically qualified students from six other states. Flagship students pay the same tuition they would at their home state’s flagship university, instead of the standard UMaine out-of-state rate. “They’re from New Jersey and were over the moon,” says Hunter. “Another happy customer.”
Hunter relishes opportunities to make connections and be accessible. Early in the morning when she’s on campus, she works out with a trainer in the glass-walled gym at the recreation center, in full view of anyone who walks by. During a Love Maine Radio interview with Hunter last fall, host Dr. Lisa Belisle recounted a story from the 2016 commencement weekend. Belisle’s son was graduating from UMaine’s Honors College, and she was driving through campus with Maine magazine publisher Kevin Thomas trying to find the location of the annual honors brunch. They saw Hunter and stopped to ask for directions. It was only after Hunter hopped in their car to direct them to the event that Belisle realized the athletic, friendly woman with short white hair was the university president.
Hunter, the first woman president in the university’s 151-year history, took the role in July 2014, after serving for 10 months as the vice chancellor for academic affairs for the University of Maine System. Except for those 10 months, Hunter has spent her entire career on the university’s Orono campus. A cell biologist, she moved to Maine from Pennsylvania in 1986 with her husband, David Lambert, and their two young children after Lambert, a plant pathologist, accepted a faculty position at UMaine’s School of Food and Agriculture. Not long afterwards, the university asked Hunter to teach a course in the zoology department, stepping in for a professor who was doing research in the Antarctic. “After a year or two I figured that the goal is you have to become irreplaceable, so that people will think, ‘If she doesn’t show up we’re in trouble,’” says Hunter. In 1991, the university hired her as a full-time faculty member. She later earned tenure and worked her way up through the academic ranks, becoming chair of the Department of Biological Sciences (now the School of Biology and Ecology) in 2003. Hunter continued to climb the career ladder at UMaine, culminating with the system job that preceded her becoming president, which placed her in charge of academic strategies for Maine’s seven public universities. “That 10 months pulled me away from campus and got me out where I learned a lot more about the other six institutions,” she says. “It was a great platform from which to then come back to the university as president.”
As president, Hunter inherited a strategic plan, rolled out by her predecessor, Paul Ferguson, in 2011 to increase enrollment, upgrade facilities, improve the university experience for both undergraduate and graduate students, and strengthen community engagement, particularly as it relates to Maine’s economy. The Flagship Match program is part of the plan, as is Maine Match, which aims to keep top Maine students in state by matching offers from flagship universities in other states.
“The demographic challenge in Maine is very real,” says Hunter. “Even if every single person stayed in Maine and got credentialed at some level, we don’t have enough high- school graduates to populate the workforce. Reaching out of state is logical.” Flagship Match succeeded right out of the gate, drawing 38 percent more out-of-state students for the fall 2016 semester and creating the largest freshman class in the history of the university. Since they pay a higher tuition, out-of-state students provide a financial boost to the university; they also benefit the state, generating about $160 million in economic activity each year, a recent UMaine study found.
The university’s relationship to the state as a whole is something that Hunter takes seriously, both as president and as a scientist. UMaine is a land-grant university, one of many created across the country by the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 to educate the public in engineering, agriculture, military science, and mechanical arts, in response to the industrial revolution. “Our signature and emerging areas of excellence are science and technology, and reflect the breadth of the land-grant institution,” Hunter says. “As a land-grant university, we really have a mission. It’s in our genetic material to serve the entire state of Maine.”
Hunter cites the 16 UMaine Cooperative Extension offices—serving every county in Maine—as a prime example of the university’s engagement with the state. These satellite educational centers put UMaine research to practical use. Through the local Cooperative Extension, Mainers who keep chickens can have the nutrition of their birds’ feed checked, farmers can learn about integrated pest management, and teen parents can find vital support. The university is also committed to driving economic development, building on its history with aquaculture research to launch the Sustainable Ecological Aquaculture Network, or SEANET, a partnership with ten other institutions to increase the food supply and create jobs.
Hunter also points to the university’s position as a “convener” for the advancement of ideas that benefit Maine. As an example, last July UMaine hosted a conference, led by the U.S. Economic Development Administration, on growing Maine’s forestry industry. “It brought in people from the forest economy, federal government, major land holders, and scientists on campus, because we have the Forest Bioproducts Research Institute,” Hunter says. The conference launched an initiative that included $4 million in federal funding, of which the university received $519,530 to advance the manufacturing of biofuel. “It was fascinating, and it’s that kind of work that will move us into doing more with high-tech,” says Hunter. “We’re going to need a differently educated workforce than what we have now. It’s not just getting a degree; it’s what credentials would allow people to get the next promotion.”
Originally hired for a two-year term, Hunter has since signed on for a third, and recently, a fourth year. She and Lambert did not move into the President’s House on campus, but they store their kayaks there. “From that garage you can roll downhill right to the river,” she says. Her schedule varies constantly, prompting her to joke: “This is a perfect job for someone with the attention span of a gerbil.” In her limited downtime, Hunter likes to be outdoors; she’s played golf since she was 12 and also enjoys stand-up paddle boarding, which she discovered on her family’s annual Christmas trip to the tropics—a different location every year. Last spring, she admitted to a colleague that she regretted having never climbed Mount Katahdin. Her chief of staff, Jim Settele, a retired Navy captain, said, “We can fix that.” On June 24, she and four colleagues did a 12-mile loop—climbing both Baxter and Hamlin peaks “by accident,” on a day when “the sky was as blue as it ever was,” she says. “I do work out, but I kept thinking, ‘If I don’t make this it will be embarrassing.’”
Aware of her status as a role model, Hunter nevertheless downplays that aspect of her position. “I try not to think of it all that often because it would seem like the weight of the world,” she says. She sees herself as more of a steward than a company CEO. “There is a public trust involved here. I get to make decisions, but I’m trying to make decisions that are mindful of the resources and are in the best interest of our students—and ultimately in the best interest of the people of Maine.” The university’s decision to name this intelligent, energetic, personable, and forward-thinking educator as its twentieth president was clearly in Maine’s best interest, too.