After two years, Eliot Cutler has resigned from his position heading up efforts to create a new Portland-based graduate center for the University of Maine System.

“When I took the job I agreed to get the business plan together and to get the financial structure on a sound footing, but I didn’t intend to make a career of this,” Cutler said, announcing his resignation Thursday. “We did all that. I’m proud of that. I think it’s very important. Now it’s time to move on.”

Cutler, a two-time gubernatorial candidate with deep ties to the business and legal communities in Maine, said his last day was Thursday. Cutler said he does not plan to run for governor in 2018.

Cutler is being replaced by George Campbell, president of the University of Southern Maine Foundation, who will be the interim CEO of the new center, USM President Glenn Cummings said.

Campbell has been president of Pierce Atwood Strategies, president of CBRE/The Boulos Company, and president and owner of Governmental Services Inc. In the public sector, Campbell served as the commissioner of the Departments of Transportation in both Maine and New Hampshire, the Maine State Development Director, and served on the Portland City Council with a term as a mayor.

Campbell “clearly has the skills and the temperament and the background to be exceptionally successful,” Cummings said.

The center would house the University of Maine School of Law, a new MBA program that replaces separate graduate business programs operating at USM and UMaine in Orono, and the graduate programs in public health, public policy and management, which now operate at the Muskie School of Public Service at USM. The graduate center 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.

Cutler said he told Chancellor James Page in July that he wanted to step down, but he delayed his departure until they received a round of funding from the Harold Alfond Foundation, which has spent millions studying and developing the project. He said he also waited until system officials decided whether to hire an interim CEO or launch a search for a permanent CEO.

‘When I took the job I agreed to get the business plan together and to get the financial structure on a sound footing, but I didn’t intend to make a career of this.’

— Eliot Cutler

Page was away on business Thursday and not available for comment, according to spokesman Dan Demeritt, who said Page would release a letter Friday about Cutler’s departure.

In July, the Alfond Foundation gave the project $500,000, the first part of a $7.5 million challenge grant. The system will receive the funding in increments as it raises a matching amount of money and reaches certain benchmarks.

The center was first proposed in 2013, and the Alfond Foundation already had provided $2.25 million to study and test the idea.

The project has not been without its conflicts. Getting the two existing MBA programs to agree on a single new program was difficult, and questions about where the new center would be located dogged the project.

In addition, Cutler was a divisive figure, according to some faculty.

“They hardly could have selected a worse person,” said USM economics professor Susan Feiner. The president of the USM chapter of the faculty union, Feiner was called into the negotiations over the graduate center when the faculty needed help in maintaining control over curriculum matters.

“Eliot Cutler was not prepared to work in an academic environment,” she said, adding that universities are not businesses where you “just decide to launch a new MBA” like a new line of merchandise.

Read Eliot Cutler’s resignation letter:

Cutler said he knows he was approaching the idea of the center from a different perspective.

“One of the challenges for academics is to better realize the importance of the responsiveness of their programs for what, in this case, the state of Maine and the businesses of Maine need,” he said. “There is a separation between the academy and the rest of the world that we cannot afford any more. And if I was bringing that news to people who didn’t like to hear it, then so be it. But I don’t think it’s contestable.”

Feiner also believes Cutler’s $250,000-a-year salary – paid by the Alfond Foundation – was “unconscionable.”

During Cutler’s tenure, new courses combining business and law were offered, as evidence of how the departments could work together in the center.

Local law and business leaders have said they support the idea of the center. 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.

Cutler said the issues with the MBA faculties have been resolved. The new Graduate School of Business will be led by a new dean from outside the system who will report to the University of Maine provost. Classes will be offered onsite, and online for students located elsewhere. Degrees will be issued by the University of Maine, and USM’s MBA program will be phased out as the center takes shape, officials said.

The chairman of the UMaine system board of trustees said Campbell will help take the project forward, with a focus on working with campus and community partners, developing a branding and marketing campaign, and launching new executive education and business incubator/accelerator programs.

“Both as a public servant and in private enterprise, George has successfully built partnerships that have resulted in tremendous new opportunities for our state,” James Erwin said. “Eliot Cutler and his team have provided us with the aspirational plan we asked for.

“Now the Board and Chancellor Page have charged George in this interim period with launching Maine Center Ventures and establishing initial relationships with the legal, professional and public service communities that will make the Maine Center successful.”

The center, Campbell said, will be a place to “bring the entrepreneurial interests of the state together with our extraordinary business, public policy and law centers.”

“What excites me,” he said, “is we’re really keen about connecting to the community. That’s the essence of the (center.)”

Cutler said he plans to take on a new role with Thornburg Investment Trust, an asset management firm, developing their business in China.

Noel K. Gallagher can be reached at 791-6387 or at:

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