Portland, Maine — The man picked to set up a combined graduate center in Portland plans a focus on real-world student experiences to build skills to meet the needs of Maine employers. Creating a single graduate center to unify the University of Maine System business and law schools will boost the state’s economy and help graduates better prepare for today’s workplace demands, said Eliot Cutler, who was named Wednesday to lead the development of the new center.
“We have the opportunity to create something that I’m confident is going to benefit the economy of Maine and the university in ways the current units can’t do,” said Cutler, an attorney and businessman who ran twice for governor. “It’s a chance for us to do something great.”
The center, which will operate in Portland and combine the graduate business degree programs at the University of Southern Maine and the University of Maine in Orono with the University of Maine School of Law, has sparked controversy, especially among faculty. Questions remain about which school would issue diplomas, particularly since officials say the center would not be a standalone school or confer degrees.
Instead, Cutler described the center as a way to “change the character of legal and business education.” The center would help students get hands-on experience in the local community and gain real-world experience, he said.
“There are three existing programs. That’s not going to change,” Cutler said Wednesday. “What will change is the experience the students have getting those degrees.”
Cutler said he would work with faculty to develop a curriculum that reflects the center’s vision of serving and working with the local business and law communities.
“I’ve got some ideas in law and business about what students need to learn and understand, but these are ideas that need to come from the faculty. My job is to encourage that,” said Cutler, who will report directly to system Chancellor James Page and will not directly supervise the school deans.
“My job is to take what they are doing and help make it better and make it more responsive to the businesses and economy of Maine,” he said.
New “concept courses” that combine business and law could begin as early as this fall, he said.
Local law and business leaders say they support the idea. Cutler said that when he was running a law firm, he couldn’t find law school graduates who could read a balance sheet. At the same time, business owners are looking for employees who are familiar with the law, he said.
“It used to be there was one door for lawyers and one door for MBAs,” he said. “But when you get out in the working world, those barriers that used to exist are breaking down. That’s not the way it is anymore.
“I want broadly educated young people who can work and innovate effectively in an economy that is changing before our eyes,” he said.
University officials and representatives from the business and law schools worked with a consultant last year to draft a proposal for the center, which was presented to the system trustees in November along with a recommendation to hire someone to take the idea to the next step.
Cutler’s job as chief executive officer of the graduate center initiative will be to finish the planning and program development process, build partnerships with local businesses and law firms, and develop pilot programs to test the idea of the graduate center, officials said. Cutler met Wednesday with the presidents and provosts at Orono and USM, and the deans of the law and business schools.
“Leaders in Maine’s business and legal communities have expressed support for expanding and combining components of our existing programs to create a model for entrepreneurial, multi-disciplinary graduate business and legal programs to drive statewide economic development,” Chancellor Page said in a written statement.
“Eliot Cutler, a highly accomplished and proven Maine leader, will develop the plans and partnerships needed to take the Professional and Graduate Center Initiative from a well-intended concept to a dynamic, value-adding economic development partner,” Page said.
His assignment is for 18 months and he will be paid $195,000 a year. The money will come from the Harold Alfond Foundation, which provided $500,000 to pay for the market study and an additional $1.25 million for early-stage development of the center.
Cutler said Wednesday that one reason he was interested in leading the center was because he had “spent the last five years” running for governor – and thinking about the state of Maine. Leading the center is a way to serve Maine, he said.
“I believe this is among the most important things we can do for the state,” said Cutler, who noted that he did not intend to run for governor again.
The consultant, Boston-based Parthenon Group, laid out multiple options for developing the center, from a small-scale $15 million option with a 25,000-square-foot facility to a comprehensive $75 million option for a “complete, state-of-the-art facility built with projected growth in mind, with flexible space used as shared workspace or incubator space.”
The report’s projections estimate that by year five, the center would have revenue of $18.1 million and net proceeds of $1.4 million. It could eventually grow to offer new certificate programs, or fold in other existing graduate programs, such as the Muskie School of Public Policy.
Some faculty have questioned the decision to spend money on a new graduate center when the system is facing serious financial shortfalls. Susan Feiner, a professor of economics at USM and president of the faculty union, also said the faculty should be more involved in the process, and she questioned the size of the investment for what is currently a combined enrollment of a few hundred students.
“Why would they be spending $70 million for a maximum 200 students when the rest of the student body is in classrooms that are falling down around them?” Feiner said.
Last month, the trustees approved a $519 million system budget for the fiscal year beginning in July that requires taking $9 million from emergency reserves, even after cutting 206 positions systemwide. Last year’s $529 million system budget required using $11.4 million in emergency funds and cutting 157 positions.
Officials say the years of ongoing budget deficits have been the result of flat state funding, declining enrollment and three years of tuition freezes. Tuition will be frozen again next fall, pending approval of the governor’s proposed 1.7 percent increase in state funding for the system.
Cutler said it was too soon to describe the eventual scale and scope of the center, or how it would eventually generate revenue. According to the consultant report, the revenue would be from tuition and fees paid by students, but those funds are currently directed to those students’ home campuses, such as Orono or USM. It remains unclear how a Portland-based center that “embraces” all three programs will be integrated into the system’s financial structure.
Cutler said one of his tasks will be to raise money for the center, in addition to recruiting business and legal leaders to teach courses or offer work-based opportunities for students. In the past week, he said, he’s heard from seven former colleagues all offering to help.
“It’s like going into a buffet,” he said of the potential for growth. “Our challenge is just to not overeat.”