The University of Maine System is considering a plan to combine the graduate business programs at the University of Southern Maine, the University of Maine in Orono and the UMaine School of Law into one program based in Portland, officials say.

A small group of representatives from the three programs and a Boston-based consulting group have been working on the plan since January, said Vendean Vafiades, a spokeswoman for the law school who is the system’s point person on the issue.

At a USM Faculty Senate meeting on Thursday, a representative from the business school said its faculty objects to the proposal.

Assistant professor Bob Heiser, speaking for the school’s 26 full-time faculty members, said the planning has been too secretive and the faculty has not had adequate say in the process, “no direct contact with the consultants and no written updates whatsoever.”

He said the planning group “adopted secrecy rules, so our faculty have not had access to either the committee meeting details or the consultants’ draft reports or PowerPoints. We have received some limited verbal updates; however, the updates seem to convey shifting approaches on many key issues.”

He said the faculty in Orono feels similarly left out.

Vafiades said the meetings are not closed and she is unaware of anyone asking to attend.

“I’m sorry they feel that way and certainly will make a point to reach out to them in a more direct way,” Vafiades said.

DRAFT ANALYSIS DUE BY THE FALL

In January, the Alfond Foundation agreed to give the university system a grant for “$400,000 or $500,000” for a specific consultant – The Parthenon Group in Boston – to study the proposal, Vafiades said.

The consultant is expected to issue a draft report in late summer or early fall that includes an analysis of the market, employers’ needs, graduates’ needs and a potential business plan.

Heiser said, “The system office also expressed a desire to create a new graduate facility in Portland.”

The news comes at a time when the university system is making deep budget cuts and faces significant shortfalls in the next several years.

Late last week, 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.

As part of that, system administrators have been encouraging consolidation and cooperation among campuses. Early efforts, with education and nursing programs, have focused on undergraduate offerings. This is the first consolidation effort involving a graduate program.

“What is being looked at is in the very preliminary stages,” Vafiades said. “It’s in the long-term interest of the business schools to coordinate and, of course, the system office is very interested in ways the system can better coordinate.”

At the Faculty Senate meeting, several faculty members questioned the implications of such a consolidation.

Bob Kuech, a professor in USM’s school of education, said his department and the nursing department have been asked to combine with programs elsewhere to create systemwide programs, offering what would be considered Orono degrees.

That would take graduate programs from USM, he said, and add those students to Orono’s enrollment, even though the graduate programs would be located in Portland.

“It will destroy our university as we know it,” Kuech said. “We have to be very careful as to what we agree to and what we discuss in these meetings.”

“That sounds like an effort to create another campus,” said Josie Laplante, a professor in USM’s Muskie School of Public Service.

Laplante said she has heard of plans to house all graduate programs in an off-campus location in Portland. “The planning for an eighth campus is not just in committee. It is real,” she said.

Vafiades said she had no information on, and the committee had not discussed, where a new program might operate, but there may not be room in existing space. The consultant’s plan will likely address that issue, she said.

“We would want to look at how one would house this program so it would be vibrant and how it might assist economic development efforts in the state,” she said. “We want it to be aspirational. We want a visible center for higher education.”

‘BUSINESS AS USUAL IS NOT AN OPTION’

USM President Theo Kalikow said she was aware of the discussion of combining the business programs, but didn’t know any details.

It was unknown how such a proposal would affect the faculty, and whether UMaine would continue graduate-level courses on the Orono campus.

“I know about as much about it as the faculty,” Kalikow said.

She said she met with Parthenon Consulting about the project earlier this year but did not discuss specifics with the firm.

“It’s not just about moving (the business school) off site. If it’s just replicating what we have in different places, that’s dumb,” Kalikow said. “This is about doing something different to better serve the people of Maine.”

With USM in difficult financial times, Kalikow said, “business as usual is not an option. Protecting your turf is not an option.”

Peggy Leonard, a spokeswoman for Chancellor James Page, referred all questions about the plan to Vafiades. The USM faculty representative on the committee, James Suleman, also referred all questions to Vafiades.

As Heiser described the proposed changes at Thursday’s Faculty Senate meeting, several people in the audience booed.

Heiser said faculty members at USM and UMaine have been considering a joint program for about a year, and while USM’s teachers support the idea of a joint program, they oppose the way it’s being developed.

Faculty members at USM’s business school are concerned that they will lose their voice in curriculum choice, hiring decisions and other administrative issues, Heiser said.

He said the faculty sent Chancellor Page a letter in January outlining its concerns and requesting more information on the proposal, but has received no response. The faculty at USM is scheduled to meet with the consultant in the upcoming weeks, he said.

The number of MBA graduates has varied widely in the two programs in recent years, although systemwide, it ranges from 60 to 80 a year. Last year, Orono had 19 MBA graduates, down from 32 in 2011-12. USM had 41 graduates last year, up from 33 in 2011-12.

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

[email protected]