By: Philip Conkling
Photography: Fred Field
The first thing I hear about Kate Foster, president of University of Maine at Farmington, is that she is not your typical college president.
Last September, Seth Taylor, who works in UMF’s development department, was returning to his office after a celebratory event at the university’s new soccer field. As he approached Merrill Hall, the gravitational center of the campus, he saw Foster on her hands and knees. Taylor leaned down beside her and was trying
to recall his emergency medical training when he realized she was tearing weeds out between the curb and the sidewalk. The unsightly growth had been bothering her for some time, she told him, and she had finally reached a point of dealing with it.
So when Kate Foster comes out of stately Merrill Hall to greet me and photographer Fred Field, I am not surprised by the sense of unconfined energy and enthusiasm she conveys as she ushers us into what she humorously refers to as her “oval office.” The room is beautiful, with a large curved window opening onto Farmington’s downtown, where you are as likely to see
a logging truck trundling by as earnest students on their way to class. “I didn’t know whether we should meet here in my office,” she says, “or in the president’s house—a place I love.” Because we are interested as much in who she is as in what she does, we are eager to accompany her to her house.
“We are about community here, writ large,” she says as we walk across campus. “Every college says that, but it’s really true here. Farmington needs us in order to thrive economically and we need the town to be vibrant in order to attract students. We root for each other.”
While en route, Foster points out the pleasing juxtaposition of old brick buildings with newer ones, and the stately white lapboard homes now occupied by various university departments. “The mix of buildings gives an authenticity to the place. It makes us memorable,” she says. “You can see the layers of history here.”
When we arrive at her handsome two-story, white-shingled residence, Foster points out that it is a Sears House—an American Foursquare, with four rooms upstairs and down, the components of which the original owner had ordered from a catalog a century ago. Foster takes us past the main entrance and around to the back door. We kick off our boots in the mudroom and enter Foster’s ight-filled sunroom, which provides a bit of radiance even on this gray day. Displayed on a table at the threshold of the room is a two- foot-high model of a Ferris wheel. Foster placed it there because, “It’s a playful piece and I want visitors and students to feel like it is going to be fun to be here.” And then she adds, “It is extremely important to feel like your space expresses you.”
We sit down in another alcove, in a more “serious” room, as Foster explains how she became UMF’s president four years ago. Foster began by listing the qualities she recognized in students, faculty, and townspeople during her initial visits to UMF. “They are confident, intellectual, plucky, community-oriented, and comfortable in their skin.” Then she added, “I like to think that’s my identity, which is why I feel so at home here.”
But Foster, by her own candid assessment, was not a traditional candidate for a university president. Five years ago, she was on a research leave from the University at Buffalo, where for 21 years she had been on the faculty and ultimately chair of the urban and regional planning department. For the last six of those years, she had led the U.B. Regional Institute, a university- based research and advocacy shop. She was on a year-long fellowship at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., she was 53 years old, and she thought, “I’ve got
15 years left until retirement. How do I want this to play out?” Her answer was simple: she wanted to become a college president. She felt qualified because she was passionate about higher education, had led a team, reported to a governing board, was responsible for developing strategy, raised money, and dealt with the media—all essential qualifications for the job.
Foster thought about possible strategies for proceeding. She could apply to “anything that moved” and see what stuck. Or she could be very careful, and “look for those opportunities where I could bring value, where there was a match,” she explains. “The fact that Farmington took a look at me says a lot about Farmington.”
What attracted Foster to UMF was “its undergraduate focus, excellent faculty and staff, students who care about liberal arts education in a quintessential college campus setting—the full body experience of college.” But Foster was also quick to admit that she did not know Maine. “Maine is the happenstance. Maine is where this gem resides.” Could she fit here? Colleagues who knew her counseled caution—would she be happy in a seemingly isolated small town far from the city lights where she had spent her entire professional life?
This is perhaps where Foster’s inner geographer comes out, harkening back to her days as a geography major at Johns Hopkins University, when she studied the effects of place on character and culture. Foster describes Farmington as “a town that fights above its weight class. It doesn’t feel like a small town. It feels like a place with opportunities. It creates a diversity of community. I like the lack of pretention. People know who they are and are attached to the place. People choose to be here.”
Foster highlights the abundance of opportunities for river and mountain sports in the area and points to the “synergy between who you are and what you are all about.” She points to UMF’s outdoors club, Mainely Outdoors, which supplies students with an array of outdoor equipment ranging from mountain bikes to canoes and kayaks and snowshoes and cross country equipment. “It doesn’t hurt to leverage our enviable location in Maine’s foothills. I love saying we are closer to Sugarloaf and Sunday River than any other Maine college or university.” And her inner geographer comes back out as she concludes, “Your location is your thing.”
Location has been Farmington’s thing since its earliest years. Settlers filtered into the rich agricultural bottomlands of the Sandy River intervale to raise bumper crops
of corn, wheat, and hay and to establish lumber mills along the riverbanks that depended on the area’s productive forested hills. In 1863, enterprising local citizens went to the legislature to get a charter to start a college, initially named the Western State Normal School, with a mission to train teachers for Maine’s expanding population of farmers’ children who needed quality educations. Ambrose Kelsey, its first president, is said to have recommended to the young women packing for the Normal School, “Bring sturdy shoes.” Farmington’s first president’s admonition recalls something Foster told me on our walk across campus: “Gravitas is not who I am. I am much more down-to-earth.”
The college has also consciously connected to its history in other ways. We stop for lunch with Seth Taylor at the student union dining hall and are struck by large posters celebrating local food sourcing, which Taylor describes as “putting the farm back in Farmington.” This focus has resulted in part from the work of students who combine coursework with community engagement. One community partner, Erica Emery (UMF 2006), established Rustic Roots Farm and recruited students to work there. Ultimately, this and other efforts helped inspire a commitment, first at UMF and then for the entire University of Maine system, to source 20 percent of its food from local growers and producers in Maine within the next four years. The system-wide adoption of Farmington’s local food plan is in keeping with something Foster told me: “We walk the talk. Students care about that. All students want their college to stand for something.”
Along with student Chelsey Oliver, Taylor escorts us to the new wood chip plant and boiler facility at the edge of campus. The chip plant receives three tractor- trailer loads of chips per week. A series of carefully engineered ramps, augers, and conveyers burns 1,200 pounds of chips per hour and circulates 200-degree water through 6,200 feet of newly installed underground heating pipes to supply 23 university buildings, including seven residence halls, with sufficient heat, even in negative-10-degree winter temperatures. To achieve UMF’s goal of becoming 85 percent fossil-fuel free for its heating needs, Foster persuaded the University of Maine system to approve an investment of $10.8 million in the new heating system. One of the important selling points was that up to $500,000 of the annual cost would end up with local woodcutters and forest products contractors, rather than in some multinational oil company.
When we return to Foster’s office, she points out that UMF is one of seven campuses in the University of Maine system and “the system needs each campus to play its position well.” Machias, she suggests, is focused on its location as a coastal college, while the University of Southern Maine is a metropolitan college, and Orono offers students opportunities for graduate research. “We win when each of us plays a different position.”
UMF plays the position of the small liberal arts college, which Foster says includes “offering opportunities for faculty mentors, study abroad, clubs, arts, drama, and diverse opportunities for leadership—all of which are characteristics of a private institution— at public rates.” If it were not for UMF, she adds, “Maine students might go out of state for those experiences.”
Increasingly, UMF is standing out within the system because of its success in bringing in students from out of state. Washington Monthly recently rated the university as one of the top colleges that provides “the biggest bang for the buck.” Foster notes, “We are intentionally increasing out-of-state students. This year’s entering class is 21 percent out- of-state. Enrollment is up because we understand the market. We provide foundational skill sets for the future, not simply for your first job, but for a lifetime of opportunities.”
Ultimately Foster’s role is “to be the keeper of the vision,” in both large ways and small. Her vision turns both on UMF’s distinctive position within the university system and its particular geography. “There needs to be a synergy between who you are and what you are all about, and my job is to help the campus realize the promise of the place,” she says, as she bends down and picks up a returnable soda can lying on the ground.