By Noel K. Gallagher
ORONO — The University of Maine System board of trustees endorsed adding the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine to a proposed graduate center that was initially planned for just business and law programs, officials said Sunday.
The trustees, meeting on the University of Maine campus in Orono, did not take a formal vote but they agree with the idea, Chancellor James Page said after a presentation by Eliot Cutler, who is leading the effort to develop a business plan for the center.
“It is meaningful enlargement” of the initial proposal, Page said.
The proposed school would be located in Portland and house the University of Maine School of Law, the graduate business programs that now operate at USM and UMaine in Orono, and the graduate programs in public health and in public policy and management that now operate at the Muskie school. It also would house the Cutler Institute for Health and Policy, which is the research arm of USM and part of the Muskie school on the Portland campus.
Altogether, those four graduate programs had 476 students enrolled in the fall of 2015.
A graduate center would offer joint courses and programs, and also certification programs for narrower areas of study, and would provide an opportunity for students to form close working relationships with the local legal, business and public service communities, partly through internships.
A final business plan for the center, with all operational details, is due to be provided to Page by late summer or early fall.
Cutler will not discuss – and the trustees did not ask about – the specific location of the center. He has said there is support for locating it on the USM campus in Portland – an idea backed by the school administration and some faculty members – and for locating it in downtown Portland. Cutler has said he is focused now on creating the plan for the center before addressing exactly where it will go.
Trustees Chairman Samuel Collins said he thought the overall proposal for the graduate center was promising.
“It’s important work for the university system and important work for the state of Maine,” Collins said. “I do believe it will give us an edge. It will give Maine businesses an edge in growing the economy and I also see it pulling people into the state.”
Cutler said one reason for a combined center is that the current independent programs are not graduating enough students to fill local business needs.
Using the Master of Business Administration programs as an example, he said his research found that in 2013 there were 378 job opportunities in Maine requiring applicants with MBAs. Only 244 MBA degrees were awarded by all MBA-granting institutions in Maine, and only 66 MBAs were granted by the programs at USM and UMaine combined.
“This is one of the reasons businesses don’t grow in Maine, and what’s worse, it’s one of the reasons they pull up stakes and leave,” Cutler told the trustees. More students would enroll in MBA programs, he said, if the programs also offered exposure to law and public policy – and vice-versa.
“The millennials, the people who are the market for this program, they get it,” he said. “They understand the changing economy that is staring them in the face.”
Cutler said business and municipal leaders in Maine have told him they would support a graduate center, as well as the idea of hiring a student for a year and providing feedback to the student’s instructors so it fulfills academic needs.
“I asked them: Would it be worth it? Would you pay a stipend to the student and a fee to the university? Every single one of them said yes, nearly before I finished the question,” Cutler told the trustees.
USM President Glenn Cummings said Muskie faculty and leadership have told him they are interested in being part of the new graduate center. However, Cummings told the trustees that the school is “absolutely fragile” in the wake of deep cuts in recent years that led to the elimination of some programs and an almost complete turnover of faculty.
“It has an incredible future, but it is just getting itself on its feet,” Cummings said.
“We think it strengthens the attractiveness of the (graduate center) program if Muskie is united,” he said, noting that Muskie’s research brings in $20 million to $25 million each year. “They believe they will be better off as part of this graduate center as well.”
The Harold Alfond Foundation is the driving financial force behind the initiative, which began about two years ago. The foundation provided $500,000 in 2014 for a market study on the center, and an additional $1.25 million for early-stage development, which includes funding Cutler’s $195,000 salary through this fall.
Cutler said he plans to ask the foundation in March to provide additional planning funds for the center, for future development work.
The Cutler Institute is named for Cutler’s mother, Catherine Cutler, who was an economist and was noted for her work on improving mental health services and education in the state. Her efforts included organizing new institutions to provide social services to people whose needs were beyond the scope of existing agencies, and helping women enter the workforce.