While few details have emerged on a proposed University of Maine System graduate center, questions are already being raised over where it should be located.

University of Southern Maine President Glenn Cummings, former Interim President David Flanagan and some USM faculty members have said they want the center to be on the USM campus in Portland.

Two-time gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler, hired in March by the university system to lead an 18-month exploratory phase for the center, won’t talk about the location, saying he is “agnostic” about where it goes.

“I don’t want to get into a battle about where something goes when we don’t know what it will be,” Cutler told the USM Faculty Senate in December. “To be a ‘what’ I have to go back to the trustees and (the Alfond) foundation with a business plan that compels the Alfonds to put in $40 million or so.”

The Harold Alfond Foundation is the driving financial force behind the initiative, which began about two years ago.

Cutler plans to update the university system trustees on the project at their Jan. 24-25 meeting in Orono. The proposed school would house the University of Maine School of Law and graduate business programs that now operate at USM and UMaine in Orono. It would offer joint courses and programs and include close working relationships, including internships, with the local law and business community.

The Alfond foundation provided $500,000 for a market study last year on the center, and an additional $1.25 million for early-stage development, which includes funding Cutler’s $195,000 salary.

TWO SUGGESTIONS ON LOCATION

At this point, the foundation has not committed to future funding, and does not have a preference for its location or size, said Greg Powell, chairman of the foundation’s board of trustees.

“What we are looking to hear from Eliot and the university is how a professional graduate center would be fashioned and built in a way that will benefit the University of Maine System as a whole and the state of Maine,” he said.

Two schools of thought have emerged on where to locate it: In downtown Portland, close to major law firms and the business hub of the state, or on the USM campus in Portland.

Cutler, who declined to comment for this article and referred questions to the university system chancellor, is scheduled to deliver a business plan for the center to the trustees and the Alfond foundation in September.

Cutler has previously said the center needs to be of sufficient size and variety to be academically distinctive, and have a flexible curriculum that attracts students and meets market needs, sufficient physical space and sufficient funding.

System officials say it’s too soon to make any decisions on where the grad center goes.

“I want to see the entire picture,” Chancellor James Page said Friday.

Discussion about other specifics of the center, such as its size and what other graduate programs may be included, are also premature, he said.

“My preference is that we work slowly and methodically … (and not) have a grandiose mission that we can’t get off the ground,” Page said.

Cutler told the USM Faculty Senate last month that he has been lobbied by Cummings and Flanagan to locate the center on campus.

Several faculty members did the same at the meeting, telling Cutler it made financial and academic sense. They argued against a downtown location, noting that it would be the fourth USM-related campus in Greater Portland and involve costly real estate or leasing arrangements, plus side issues such as parking and needing campus-based support such as information technology assistance or building maintenance. And being on campus would benefit the interdisciplinary nature of the program, the faculty members said.

“Your president (Cummings) has been incredibly active and articulate in making those arguments,” Cutler responded. “I hear him telling me this all the time. I’m not conceding to those arguments, but that doesn’t mean I disagree.”

MANY MOVING PARTS INITIALLY

Page said initial feedback from a 100-plus-member advisory committee made up of business, law and public policy professionals is positive.

“We’ve got lots of confirmation that the general approach and general goals are worthy,” he said. But there is work to get many moving parts “in alignment to get out of first gear.”

In December, several USM faculty members asked whether the center is intended to eventually house other graduate programs, such as the Muskie School of Public Policy, social work or nursing. Combining multiple programs also triggers questions about whether the students and faculty will still be considered affiliated with UMaine or USM, or be associated with some third, systemwide entity.

Last fall, two pilot classes – a negotiations course and an environmental law course – were offered, both using a combination of graduate program resources and faculty to demonstrate how a combined program might work.

As for the location, Page acknowledged it is an important factor, and “it’s not just about where do we like the view. It’s important on all kinds of grounds,” including the points made by USM faculty.

Flanagan agreed.

“I believe it would be in the best interests of everyone concerned if the structure was physically located on the Portland campus,” said Flanagan, who sits on the board of the Alfond foundation and is chairman of the Muskie School’s Board of Visitors, an advisory group. “I personally feel it would be good to have the center located in close proximity to the students because there should be an ebb and a flow, a conduit between graduate and undergraduate students, that can best be achieved if there is a close proximity.”

Possible on-campus sites include two large surface parking lots – one between the Muskie Center and the parking garage, and one across the street adjacent to the student center. The garage can be expanded by three more levels if needed, campus officials have said.

The current law school building, deeply deteriorated and considered beyond any retrofitting, is a half-block away from those locations.

“The ‘where’ question is big. It’s a huge question. Glenn and I talk about it all the time,” Cutler told the faculty at its senate meeting, referring to Cummings, who was in the audience. “The fact of the matter is, as the chancellor has pointed out, depending on who invests, they may have strong feelings. Every point you made is good. My focus is on developing a plan that can go everywhere.”

THE ALFOND MODEL – TEAMWORK

Powell, the trustees chairman, said the foundation is “very excited” by early support for the center.

“There is much work to be done,” he said. “The law school will have to work with the business schools and Muskie and they will have to work with both the business and legal communities to support it in a way that has not occurred in the past.”

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.

Powell said the Alfond foundation has funded similar initiatives, but only after guaranteeing there was teamwork between multiple entities, and that the project included additional funding that supplements the Alfond donations.

“Teamwork is required. By bringing elements of the university together, we may be able to build something far better,” Powell said. “Our philosophy over time has always encouraged this.”

One example is the Alfond Youth Center in Waterville, home to both the YMCA and the Boys and Girls Club. Powell said the foundation encouraged both entities and the city recreation department to create the center, which was funded with a 3-to-1 match from the foundation.

Another example was encouraging Good Will-Hinckley in Fairfield and neighboring Kennebec Valley Community College to partner, with the college buying some Good Will-Hinckley land and working out an early college opportunity for high school students at the new charter school there, the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences.

The foundation also encouraged multiple arts and cultural groups in Waterville to join forces, leading to a new entity – “Waterville Creates” – that received a $1.5 million foundation grant in December to benefit various organizations, including the Colby College Museum of Art, Maine Film Center, Waterville Opera House, Waterville Public Library and Common Street Arts.

“We’re looking for that (same model) here,” Powell said. “There’s going to need to be teamwork for the graduate center for it to succeed with us or without us.”