By Noel Gallagher
An ambitious $150 million proposal by the University of Maine System to create a new graduate center for business, law and public policy in Portland would be phased in slowly, with first-stage funding of $15 million for the first few years, according to a business plan posted online Thursday.
But a funding source for two-thirds of the capital needed has not yet been identified, according to the plan.
“It is, I think, something that can transform Maine’s economy, rebuild communities around the state and address several problems that have been plaguing Maine for years,” said Eliot Cutler, who led the effort to develop the business plan.
The business plan was included in materials for this weekend’s board of trustees meeting in East Millinocket.
The trustees will review and vote on the plan, then forward it to the Harold Alfond Foundation, which has been the driving financial force behind the initiative. Over the past two years, the foundation has provided $2.25 million for early-stage development.
If the multi-year first stage is successful, the trustees will be asked to authorize a second stage that includes raising funds to build a $94 million building somewhere in Portland to house the Maine Center for Graduate Professional Studies. A location has not yet been identified.
Chancellor James Page said Thursday he supports the center and is asking the trustees to sign off on making it a priority project, but he noted the plan is to move carefully.
“At this first stage, it’s really to endorse the concept, and also to recognize that this is a very, very big undertaking,” Page said. Approval means “we can start to build the programs, get more proof of concept. But it’s not asking us or the trustees or anyone to jump off the deep end on the first day.
“We know it will evolve over a couple of years, but we want to start walking down that road,” he said.
If the business plan is approved, Page will ask the Alfond Foundation for $10 million: $5 million for the first year of operations, and another $5 million in the second year that would be matched with outside funding.
The proposed center would house the University of Maine School of Law, a new MBA program that combines the current graduate business programs operating at University of Southern Maine and UMaine in Orono, and the graduate programs in public health and in public policy and management that now operate at the Muskie School of Public Service at USM. 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.
Those programs currently enroll 490 students, and the plan anticipates enrollment will grow to 600 students by 2025.
Financial projections anticipate a total capital investment of $150 million, with over $100 million raised from foundations that invest in education reform, but the report does not identify potential funders. The center will be financially self-sustaining by 2024, according to the plan.
The University of Maine System is not committing extra money for the center. Alfond money has paid for all work up to this point, and officials say the university system will continue to provide the same funding for the programs – averaging about $3.2 million a year – that is currently budgeted.
Page said the center is meant to directly address the needs of the state, including replacing an aging workforce , increasing the skills of already employed workers andattracting new people to the state.
“(The university system) has a responsibility to be as responsive as we possibly can to the needs of the state,” Page said. “We have to address those needs on a whole series of fronts, and one of them is developing these kinds of educational opportunities.”
In addition to offering combined degrees, each program will have new offerings to attract students, Cutler said. Law, for example, will offer more certificate programs and new master of laws programs; the MBA program will include an executive education program and certificate programs.
“We have created something that will attract people to come to Maine,” Cutler said. “Millennials are looking for this kind of integrated program.”
One of the first steps in creating a center is a new MBA program, with students earning a UMaine graduate business degree even if they attend classes in Portland. The trustees have not yet approved a new MBA program, but it is scheduled to start being offered in fall 2017.
Talks are underway on combining the two programs, but campus officials say it will involve joint appointments for professors and collaboration between USM and Orono faculty and administration. Classes will be offered online and at both campuses, and the degree will not require students or faculty at either campus to commute to the other.
A new nonprofit, Maine Center Ventures, will handle marketing and fundraising for the center, and work with business and professional communities. The nonprofit’s chief executive officer would report to an advisory board, chaired by the chancellor, that includes the presidents of USM and UMaine.
The plan emphasizes the need for a new building: “It will represent to prospective students by its very design the kind of graduate education experience that millennials want – and that employers want them to have. Students will see the building, imagine themselves in it, and say, ‘I want to go there.’ ”