By James McCarthy
Eliot Cutler, CEO of the Maine Center for Professional Graduate Studies, says the ambitious $150 million proposal to create a new graduate center for business, law and public policy is based on two related premises.
Many Maine employers can’t find workers with the high-level skills that are needed to compete in an increasingly global economy, he says, and the University of Maine System’s graduate programs are uniquely positioned to help solve that problem.
“The biggest challenge we face in this state is not taxes, it’s not energy costs, it’s that we don’t have the workforce we need to be competitive in the 21st Century,” says Cutler, who was selected to lead the UMaine system’s initiative in April 2015. “If you look at the states that are doing well, it’s all because their workforce has the skills that are needed in today’s world. That’s why we’ve put that [need] front and center of the business plan.”
The business plan for the new graduate center received a key preliminary endorsement by the University of Maine System’s Board of Trustees on Oct. 23, which unanimously approved a $15 million fundraising effort as the first step in a multi-phase capital campaign to build a $93.6 million, 180,000 square-foot building in Portland. The site would place under one roof the newly merged MBA programs of the University of Maine and University of Southern Maine, the Muskie School, Cutler Institute, Maine Law School, a conference center and an incubator/business accelerator program.
Highlights of the 75-page business plan:
- Strengthen and build upon Maine Law’s existing programs that prepare students to fill the growing need for lawyers in rural Maine.
- Merge the MBA programs at the UMaine and USM and expand their reach to serve Maine businesses, for example, through a high-quality executive education program. The goal is to double MBA enrollments by 2025, to 200 students, including at least 20 Maine and out-of-state students enrolled in an “experiential and cross-curricular MBA program with close ties to Maine employers.”
- Expand the Muskie School of Public Services’ executive education offerings, including greater collaboration with the MBA, Maine Law and Cutler Institute for Health and Social Policy programs, to meet demand in fast-emerging fields such as data analytics.
The plan also calls for a $45 million endowment and stipulates that the Maine Center would be a self-sustaining operation funded by tuition and fees. The $150 million fundraising goal makes it one of the largest fundraising efforts ever conducted for a Maine endeavor. In an ambitious timeline, it sets a December 2019 target completion date for fundraising in order to open the new Maine Center building by September 2021.
Cutler says the Maine Center already has reached out to the Harold Alfond Foundation, which contributed more than $2 million to help finance the 18-month planning process. Additionally, it will seek major assistance and gifts from national foundations that invest in education reform efforts.
‘I can’t find the people I need’
One of the business plan’s more telling findings, Cutler says, is the link between a decade-long decline in enrollment among all UMaine system graduate programs and the impact that trend might be having on workforce challenges encountered by Maine employers and communities struggling to find high-skill professional workers.
In 2013, for example, there were more than 378 jobs openings in Maine requiring an MBA degree, but the UMaine System’s two MBA program each had produced only 33 graduates the previous year. Even with Husson University, Thomas College and St. Joseph’s College’s 2012 MBA graduates added in, there were 134 fewer Maine MBA graduates than were needed to fill the posted jobs, the business plan states.
Cutler says David Tassoni, senior vice president of operations for Athenahealth, wasn’t the only business leader expressing the frustration “I can’t find the people I need,” in describing his struggles to find “high-level thinking, high-level MBAs” for job openings at the rapidly growing health care technology company’s Belfast facility.
He says Tassoni’s comment is echoed by a similar concerns in the legal arena that were voiced by Chief Justice Leigh Saufley of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court and Nan Heald, executive director of Pine Tree Legal Assistance, who have each expressed a concern about the lack of lawyers in rural Maine. “Maine is in a major crisis in providing good legal representation to everyone in all walks of life. Cumberland County is OK, but not everywhere else,” Saufley told the Maine Center team.
Cutler adds that rural Maine businesses are among those that would benefit from strengthening Maine Law’s existing programs to serve the law needs of rural Maine.
Maine Center’s business plan concludes: “Maine’s shrinking economy, under-educated workforce and lousy demographics (i.e. aging and declining population and loss of young people who seek their fortunes out of state) make the reform of graduate professional education an urgent priority for the state.”
Maine Law: Already breaking down silos
The business plan calls for a multi-pronged strategy to increase graduate program enrollments and foster more collaboration between Maine Law, the Muskie School and the newly unified MBA program. It seeks to achieve a more than 35% increase in graduate school enrollments by 2024.
Both goals are driven by the belief that putting those programs under one roof as a true consortium “will break down the walls and silos in graduate programs that already are vanishing from the real world of work; will breed the collaboration and relationship-building that is increasingly valued in the economy; and will better capitalize on Maine’s competitive advantages, better create economic opportunities and better meet employers’ needs.”
Danielle Conway, who became dean of University of Maine School of Law in July 2015, embraces that emphasis, pointing out that it will strengthen and enhance Maine Law initiatives such as the PLUS Program, a new summer immersion program for college undergraduates that aims to bring diversity to the legal profession. Maine Law received a $300,000 grant from the Law School Admission Council to fund the program for three summers and is one of only 16 law schools nationwide selected for funding.
The program is designed primarily for college students of color, immigrants, low-income students and students from rural areas. Along with the interdisciplinary focus of the Maine Center consortium, Conway says the PLUS Program and another initiative, the newly created Refugee and Human Rights Clinic the law school is hosting in partnership with the Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic, are among the ways Maine Law will “differentiate” itself from other law schools across the nation.
In simple terms, it makes Maine Law more reflective of the diversity that exists in both the United States and the world.
Another initiative that will be enhanced by the Maine Center’s “one roof, three programs” emphasis, she says, is the law school’s Rural Law Pilot Project, which starts next year and will link two students a year to Maine rural lawyer mentors. “It will provide work opportunities so that students learn about how a rural law practice benefits a community,” Conway says.
“What we’re investing in is ‘quality’ and it’s quality of the kind that fits our country’s needs,” Conway says. “I like to think of the Maine Center as a convenor, a place where we can share opportunities and experiences and expand their reach beyond what we could do in one school or one department.”
The USM perspective: Opportunity, but also concerns
USM President Glenn Cummings, who also started in July 2015, says he supports the underlying goals of the Maine Center initiative, recalling a conversation in which a friend told him Maine workers had a strong work ethic, showed up on time and cared about the quality of their work. But what was missing, the friend continued, was “that next level of people” who can see patterns and trends, identify markets with strong potential for growth and effectively communicate how to get there.
“The business plan is the starting point of discussion,” Cummings says. “I very much support it being aspirational, but as a good New Englander, I want to see how we’re going to make it work. … The politics of merging the MBA programs are very complicated. Our faculty is particularly concerned about equity in the new governance structure. So it’s my job to make sure those concerns are fairly addressed.”
Cummings also qualifies his support for the “one roof, three programs” concept with a strong assertion that if a new building is to be built, it needs to be located on the USM campus rather than off-campus somewhere else in Portland.
“It would be very devastating to us if, in a single swipe, you were to relocate Maine Law and the Muskie School outside of this campus,” Cummings says. “It would leave this Portland campus desolate. We can’t afford to be neutral on that question.”
Cummings points out, for example, that USM’s “4+1” accelerated degree programs allow qualifying students to focus on their bachelor’s degree requirements during their first three years, take a mix of bachelor’s and master’s requirements in the fourth year and then complete their master’s requirements in the fifth year. If the graduate programs are moved off-campus, he says, it will complicate the logistics for those fourth-year students and potentially break the pathway toward continuing their graduate studies at USM.
The business plan is explicitly silent on the issue, although Cutler agrees there are merits to placing the proposed Maine Center building on the USM campus.
“There are arguments that could be made for putting it on the peninsula, and there are arguments for putting it on the Portland campus,” Cutler says. “If it were left up to me, I can make a stronger argument for keeping it on the campus. But it’s not my decision to make, or Glenn’s. We’re asking investors to put a lot of money into this [proposed building]. They deserve an opportunity to have a say in where it might be located.”
Firooza Pavri, director of the Muskie School, shares Conway’s enthusiasm for the Maine Center business plan, noting that her program, like Maine Law, already embraces a strong interdisciplinary, problem-focused approach in its degree programs. But she sees even greater opportunities to do so under the Maine Center model of putting the Muskie School, the Cutler Institute, Maine Law and the newly merged USM and UMaine MBA programs eventually under one roof.
“It’s a really exciting proposal,” she says. “I think there is a great deal of potential. It’s good for our students if we’re able to provide more opportunities for interdisciplinary learning. It gives them a mix of skills so that when they leave our program they will be well-versed in all of these areas. That’s a huge plus.”