Maine’s business leaders are applauding the selection of former gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler by the University of Maine System to establish a centralized graduate business and law center in Portland.

However, faculty members at the University of Southern Maine are not pleased.

The University of Maine System has yet to publicly confirm Cutler’s appointment to oversee the creation of the graduate center, but several people briefed on the appointment have confirmed him as the choice. Cutler declined an interview request on Wednesday, saying he won’t comment until next week.

“I want to get everything straight,” he said.

The plan to consolidate the graduate business degree programs of USM and the University of Maine in Orono, as well as the University of Maine School of Law in Portland, has provoked controversy, especially among faculty, since early last year when James Page, chancellor of the university system, floated the idea of consolidating the programs in Portland and getting them more engaged in the business community.

The controversy spans the territorial – which schools will get credit for the degrees? – to how the university system has undertaken the process.

Susan Feiner, a professor of economics at USM and president of the faculty’s union, called Cutler’s appointment “extremely problematic.”

“Regardless of his qualifications, the appointment is way outside of what is considered standard academic practice,” she said. “There was no shared governance in this at all and it’s very clear in our constitution that faculty are to play a significant role in electing people who direct the academic enterprise. I’ve been deeply bothered that the whole project around this graduate center has gone on with so much secrecy and no transparency.”

Controversy, however, is to be expected when bold moves are called for, according to Ed Cervone, executive director of Educate Maine, a Portland-based nonprofit that works to improve Maine’s educational landscape.

“Often big change comes with some heartache and heavy lifting,” he said. “But overall it looks like it’s moving us in a good direction, offering us opportunities and engaging some pretty smart leaders who are thinking about our future and our economy’s future.”

WORTH THE COST?

Developing this new combined business and law graduate center would cost between $15 million and $75 million, depending on the level of commitment the university system’s board of trustees wants to make, according to a consultant’s feasibility study completed last fall.

At the expensive end of that spectrum, the consultants from the Boston-based Parthenon Group envision a “complete, state of the art facility built with projected growth in mind, with flexible space used as shared workspace or incubator space.”

That cost is hard to swallow after the system has been cutting jobs and dropping academic programs, according to Feiner.

The University of Maine System has had a rough few years as it struggles with dwindling enrollment. The system has eliminated 556 positions in the past two years, and cut $30 million from the next two fiscal year budgets, according to a speech Chancellor Page gave in March to the Maine Legislature on the state of the university system.

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.

The number of MBA graduates coming out of the individual business schools in Portland and Orono has varied widely in recent years. On a systemwide basis, it ranges from 60 to 80 annually.

The number of MBA graduates of USM has dropped significantly in the past few years. USM’s business school graduated 19 MBA students after the 2013-14 school year, down from 41 in 2012-13 and 33 in 2011-12.

In Orono, there were 22 MBA graduates after the 2013-14 school year, up slightly from the year before, but down from 32 in 2011-12.

Spending tens of millions of dollars on that small a number of students is “crazy,” Feiner said.

“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?”

Shawn Moody, an entrepreneur and former gubernatorial candidate who sits on the UMS board of trustees, disagrees.

“I realize people will see this as controversial, but I think we can all agree we’re not going to cut our way to prosperity,” said Moody, who’s president of Moody’s Collision Centers, the company he founded in 1977 as a senior at Gorham High School. “This is us starting to say we need to make priorities and the business school and law school are priorities, and that’s where we’re going to make a strategic investment.”

Making such an investment is sometimes necessary, according to Andrea Cianchette Maker, an attorney at Pierce Atwood and leader of the firm’s government relations practice.

“The state of Maine needs to make some bold moves to propel us out of the economic doldrums,” she said. “This is one of those moves. I applaud it. And I’m excited about what it can do for our state.”

Specifically, Maker thinks the combining of graduate business and law degrees is a smart move. Maker received an undergraduate business degree from the University of New Hampshire before studying law at the University of Maine School of Law.

“I’ve always thought that combination would provide a solid foundation for moving in any number of directions,” she said. “And I’ve been a number of directions and it has served me well.”

Feiner made clear that she is not arguing that combining the graduate degree programs is a bad idea; she just wishes the faculty had as great a say in the matter as it seems some members of the business community have.

“For goodness’ sake, each one of us has a Ph.D.,” Feiner said. “That’s part of the arrogance of the board of trustees to dismiss our expertise because we haven’t run businesses.”

‘DYNAMIC’ PROFESSIONAL SOUGHT

The University of Maine System posted on Feb. 18 a job advertisement for “a dynamic and innovative professional who will drive the creation of a multi-disciplinary professional and graduate center in partnership with Maine’s business and professional community.”

Suitable candidates will exhibit “demonstrated leadership” and “a significant record of achievement” in the private or nonprofit sector, the ad says. It also calls for someone with “a record of strong entrepreneurial leadership, including innovation, a history of building and sustaining consensus around change and demonstrated concrete outcomes.”

Cutler, 68, has had a long career spanning government, business, the law and politics.

After graduating from Harvard, Cutler worked for U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie and eventually was appointed associate director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Jimmy Carter.

He then went on to found his own environmental law firm and worked around the world, most recently in China, before returning to Maine. He unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2010 and 2014.

Those credentials make him a good candidate for the job, according to members of Maine’s business and economic development communities.

“I think getting a leader such as Eliot is a big step in making big change happen,” Cervone said.

“He’ll be an awesome leader for that center,” said Jess Knox, coordinator for the Blackstone Accelerates Growth economic development initiative. “His business and legal background is enormous. His experience in China and other markets is a huge asset. If he can bring that to the university’s graduate studies program, it’s a huge win for Maine.”

Charles Lawton, chief economist for Planning Decisions Inc., believes Cutler’s relationships with members of Maine’s business community is exactly what a leader of the new center will need to successfully integrate the school into the local business community, as well as forge connections with those of out of state.

“That the University of Maine is offering this program is very positive, and that we’re going to put a person of significant stature with business and legal contacts all over world in charge of it is doubly significant,” Lawton said.

Despite Cutler’s qualifications, Feiner said faculty members are still skeptical.

The job posting says applications will be accepted until the position is filled, but adds that “applications received after the first screening date on March 6, 2015 will be considered at the discretion of the university.”

That narrow window has caused some to question the method by which Cutler was picked.

Feiner said she spoke to a dozen faculty members on Wednesday “and to a person they said that it’s cronyism and that it’s probably LePage’s payoff to Cutler for helping LePage get re-elected.”

She continued: “Leadership positions in the (University of Maine System) appear to be a jobs program for the state’s 1 percent.”

SYSTEM STILL MUM

Officials from the University of Maine System remained silent Wednesday on Cutler’s appointment.

“We’re no further along in our ability to release any details,” said Dan Demeritt, the system’s spokesman. “The process is still not finalized and we won’t have an announcement until we have a signed contract with our finalist.”

Demeritt did, however, offer additional details on the proposed center.

Its name has not been chosen. He was not aware of when people began calling it the Alfond Professional and Graduate Center, but said that’s not final.

He said another misconception is that the center would combine business schools of USM and UMaine. The business schools are not being combined, he said, just the MBA programs.

“This is not about consolidating business schools,” Demeritt said. “We can’t speak in absolutes, but what’s envisioned through the recommendation of the Parthenon report is in line with the One University initiative, where we have strategic alignment of our administrative and academic programs across the state.”

The One University initiative was adopted by the system’s board of trustees last summer. It sets the goal of shedding administrative costs by creating a fully integrated university with campuses pursuing different missions.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.