The University of Maine System is working with consultants on a proposal to open an Alfond Professional and Graduate Center in Portland to house the UMaine law school and graduate business programs that now operate at the University of Southern Maine and UMaine in Orono.

The initial proposal envisions a program involving faculty members from all of the schools, with those at Orono commuting to Portland or teaching via videoconference or online, said Vendean Vafiades, a spokeswoman for the law school. The program could provide online access for students and faculty members statewide.

“This is an opportunity for the University of Maine System to create something to be proud of,” said Peter Pitegoff, dean of the law school.

Under a $500,000 consulting contract with system officials, dated Feb. 20, Boston-based Parthenon Group is developing “a comprehensive feasibility study and strategic business plan for the Alfond center, including economic, organizational, communication and implementation plan components.”

A small group of people from the three programs and The Parthenon Group has been meeting regularly on the plan, and a draft report is expected by late summer or early fall, Vafiades said. The contract calls for the work to be done by midsummer.

The Alfond Foundation, named for the late Maine businessman and philanthropist Harold Alfond, is a longtime donor to educational causes in the state, from funding multimillion-dollar facilities to providing $500 college grants to all babies born in Maine. The foundation did not return multiple phone calls over several days regarding the university system’s proposal.

News of the proposal spilled out beyond the university community last week, when the 26 full-time faculty members in USM’s business school issued a statement raising concerns about the planning process.

Although they support a joint degree program, the teachers fear that they would lose their leadership role and they want a greater say in the planning process, said Bob Heiser, an associate professor who presented the statement at the USM Faculty Senate meeting Thursday.

University system officials have referred all questions to Vafiades.

Gloria Vollmers, a professor in the business school at Orono, said she is not as concerned about the proposal as USM’s faculty is. She said faculty members in Orono did raise concerns when the idea was first discussed, but understand that the planning group is still looking at the big picture.

“Where does the tuition go? What will the diploma say? Which school gets credit for the students?” Vollmers wrote in an email. “Those issues are ones that should be answered AFTER determining if a joint program is even feasible.”

A joint program would have benefits, she said, noting that it would free up the faculty to offer more electives. The master of business administration program at Orono has 22 full-time faculty members.

“We would end up with a more robust MBA and possibly could offer a specialty MBA (in health care, for example). Also, exposing students to more faculty is always good,” she wrote.

Vafiades said the study group is analyzing options for the program, but nothing has been decided.

The consulting contract does not rule out other graduate programs from being considered as part of the proposed Alfond center, although Vafiades said the committee is now considering only the law and graduate business programs.

Pitegoff, the law school dean, said, “I would hope this is the start of some broader graduate initiative that the system will build.”

Graduate school enrollment throughout the University of Maine System was 2,808 students last fall, down 8.6 percent from five years earlier.

The number of MBA graduates ranges from 60 to 80 a year. Last year, Orono had 19 graduates, down from 32 in 2011-12. USM had 41 graduates last year, up from 33 in 2011-12.

Last fall, the law school had 272 students, up about 4 percent from five years earlier.

SUPPORT IN THE LEGAL COMMUNITY

Several members of Portland’s legal community said they strongly support the idea of combining the law and graduate business programs.

Many other states already do that, and it’s desirable for the firms that hire graduates, said Dan Boxer, a retired lawyer and former chief administrative officer at Fairchild Semiconductor who teaches at the law school and serves on its Board of Visitors.

“I’ve been enthused about this in a number of different ways,” said Boxer.

The lines between business and law have merged in many areas, and a joint program would produce well-rounded graduates, he said.

“Times have changed,” he said. “Whether or not it can be done remains to be seen, but I absolutely believe if we don’t investigate it, then we’re selling short what we can offer students.”

Pat Scully, chief executive officer at the Bernstein Shur law firm in Portland, said lawyers increasingly need to be well-grounded in business, and vice versa. Most of his firm’s clients are businesses, and the attorneys must immerse themselves in their work.

“Business principles aren’t taught in any great detail in law, so it’s a very beneficial thing” to bring them together in a joint program, said Scully, who graduated from the UMaine law school. “It will be easier for students to draw on the best of both offerings.”

LAW SCHOOL NEEDS BETTER FACILITY

The proposal is in keeping with the university system’s push to consolidate programs among campuses as much as possible, and comes in the midst of a sustained financial crisis. Deep cuts have been made systemwide in the past five years, and more are coming.

Two weeks ago, the system’s trustees released a draft strategic plan that would cut about $60 million through workforce reductions over the next five years, as part of an effort to close a projected $69 million budget deficit by 2019.

“There’s a long history of our wanting to collaborate with other parts of the university,” Pitegoff said, noting that the law school has joint degree programs with the business schools and the Muskie School of Public Service at USM.

He said the law school also has long sought better facilities. Its current building, a distinct round building built in 1972 on USM’s Portland campus, lacks adequate lounge, study and classroom space and access to technology that students expect. Maintenance on the building has been deferred.

Pitegoff said a new facility should be up to date on technology, and have adequate space for classrooms, public events and work with clients.

“Those are my primary goals,” he said. “On campus, off campus: It’s premature to think about that.”

Before the recession, USM and law school leaders explored moving the law school to downtown Portland, he said.

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

ngallagher@pressherald.com