UMaine System trustees approve law school's temporary move to Old Port

·4 min read

May 24—The University of Maine System Board of Trustees voted Monday to authorize a lease agreement for the temporary move of the University of Maine School of Law to Portland's Old Port.

The board's decision was unanimous and means the law school, which is currently located at 246 Deering Avenue, could relocate as early as this fall.

"I want to thank everyone for supporting this," said Board of Trustees Chair James Erwin. "I think it's a critical step for the law school and eventually for the very innovative Maine Center for Graduate and Professional Studies."

The system has already signed a non-binding letter of intent with the Council on International Educational Exchange to take over space owned and currently occupied by the council at 300 Fore St. The lease is available at a fixed rate for a five-year term of $15 per square foot, which works out to $957,000 annually.

The move is expected to be temporary until a new Maine Center building is constructed on the University of Southern Maine campus, although there is no timeline for when construction on that building will be completed. Basic operating costs at 246 Deering Ave., which is owned by the system, are about $550,000 annually, while operating costs at 300 Fore St. are expected to be about $290,000 in addition to the annual lease costs.

If the Deering Avenue building is vacated, the operating costs could decrease by $330,000 annually and further savings could be achieved if the building is removed by demolition, an action that would require further board approval. No City of Portland zoning changes are necessary at the Fore Street location, but the system will be seeking endorsement from the city for its intended use of the building.

Cost estimates for any renovations that would need to be done to the Fore Street building are still being developed, but the system does have some funding that could help, including a $1 million gift and $1.5 million in additional funds for law school operating costs that have been allocated in the governor's supplemental budget.

"All things considered we believe this is in the best interest of the university system and certainly the law school to undertake this move," James Thelen, the system's vice chancellor for strategic initiatives and chief legal officer, told the board Monday.

The planned move for the law school follows a 2019 report that called for sweeping changes in order to improve its financial standing, grow diversity and boost faculty recruitment and retention. Leigh Saufley, the law school's dean, said the system began looking for a new home for the law school in 2005 but previous efforts had been unsuccessful and in the interim a lack of maintenance has contributed to the current building's deterioration. In 2017 it was named one of the eight ugliest university buildings in America by Architectural Digest.

"The proposed interim placement for the law school will bring a whole new professional placement for the law school, the graduate and professional center and several partners that will go into this building," Saufley said. "It's really a game changer for legal education in Maine and even though it is only an interim plan, it will make an enormous difference in our ability to grow the law school."

Only one person spoke about the move during public comments before the board.

Lydia Savage, a professor and chair of the geography-anthropology department at the University of Southern Maine, questioned the decision. As a department chair, she said she must be meticulous in making requests for things like the hiring of a part-time faculty member to teach a required introduction to anthropology course. She has been asked to provide the projected enrollment for the courses, the tuition generated, the cost of the part-time faculty member and a written justification.

"How is it a part-time faculty member that gets paid peanuts gets such a level of scrutiny but the system can afford to rent this new space and notably in the Old Port and not Westbrook or Scarborough?" Savage said. "I think this is a tone deaf and wasteful action."

In other news Monday, the board unanimously appointed Mark Gardner as chair and James Donnelly as vice chair for the 2021-2022 year and voted unanimously to authorize a review team to enter into contract negotiations with Chancellor Dannel Malloy, whose current three-year contract expires in June 2022.

Finally, the board also approved renaming the former Little Hall at the University of Maine Orono in honor of Beryl Warner Williams, a Bangor native who was involved in the NAACP, National Council of Negro Women, the American Red Cross and other civic organizations. The renaming comes after the board voted in September to remove the name of Little, a former UMaine president and eugenics advocate, after a task force found aspects of his professional life conflicted with the university's values.

An alum with two degrees from the university, Williams was a lifelong educator who made significant contributions to higher education and was the first woman to be appointed to a deanship at Morgan State University, a historically Black university in Maryland. She also served as the first female president of the Penobscot Interracial Forum in Bangor.

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