Recently, there has been a good bit of discussion in the media about the proposed University of Maine System business and law graduate education initiative.

A working group of faculty and administrators from the business schools at both the University of Maine and the University of Southern Maine, as well as from the University of Maine School of Law, met on a number of occasions over the course of the last year and a half to discuss the feasibility of this initiative and its structure.

These discussions were conducted with the knowledge of our faculties, to whom we regularly reported. We are the representatives to that working group of the USM School of Business faculty and the University of Maine School of Law faculty.

Higher education, particularly public higher education, is in the midst of a financial crisis. As costs have increased, universities have responded by passing on these costs to students in the form of higher tuition and fees.

The Economist, in a recent cover story on the future of higher education, points out that tuition and fees for higher education in America have significantly increased over the past 20 years and that student debt has eclipsed all other kinds of non-mortgage debt in the U.S. This situation is untenable.

Universities must focus on eliminating duplication and inefficiencies and adopt cost-effective technology with the goal of providing better education at lower cost. This is one of the important objectives of the business and law initiative of the University of Maine System – to provide affordably priced, top-quality professional education in business and law that is closely aligned with the needs of the Maine economy.

Sophisticated business leaders appreciate the importance of law in the life of any business and are themselves knowledgeable consumers of legal services. Lawyers who work with businesspeople quickly realize that the value they provide to those business clients depends to a significant degree on their understanding of how the business operates and what the client really needs from the lawyer.

Increasingly, those with law degrees are branching out beyond the practice of law to positions in business organizations and to other non-legal opportunities where knowledge of the applicable law is essential to the competent performance of a leadership role.

The business and law initiative will stimulate cross-disciplinary education and training in hands-on problem solving for clients.

The University of Washington offers a clinic for law and business students to provide assistance to startups lacking the resources to hire private lawyers and consultants. The students work in teams and learn about each other’s disciplines while assisting in the creation of new businesses. Why couldn’t we do something like this in Maine?

One approach to deal with the high cost of higher education is the adoption of new technology to cut the costs of delivering educational offerings and expand the geographic scope within which those offerings can be provided.

If it has access to cutting-edge technology, the business and law initiative can make use of it to educate students across Maine. Greater reliance on technology and less reliance on live classroom contact is the future of higher education in this country, and public university systems ignore this at their peril.

If the business and law program is successful, it will produce a new generation of business leaders and lawyers for Maine to help fuel economic development and new jobs for the state. The close association of a new MBA program with the existing law program is an important first step, but the strengthening of connections between the academy and the community generally is essential if this and other initiatives are to have a beneficial impact on the Maine economy.

The business and law initiative will happen only if we can work together to seek out the funding for this effort and to build a quality program to accomplish it. The Harold Alfond Foundation appreciates the importance of this initiative and has provided significant financial support for the initial planning and organizational efforts.

We are delighted that a person with the background and vision of Eliot Cutler has been chosen to carry this initiative forward, and we wish him all success. For our part, we – and, we believe, our faculty colleagues – will contribute what we can to make this program work for the university system and for the state of Maine.