A University of Maine System Board of Trustees committee is recommending a temporary relocation for the University of Maine School of Law to an office building in Portland’s Old Port before construction of a new building on the campus of the University of Southern Maine.
The proposal is being criticized by some faculty members at USM, who question spending nearly $1 million a year on rent when the existing building is scheduled for replacement.
But university and law school leaders touted the planned move as critical to the future success of the law school, which recently underwent a reorganization to help improve its programming and financial standing. They said the current building, at 246 Deering Ave., is in such disrepair that it doesn’t make sense for students and staff to stay there.
“What is wrong with the building is a four-hour conversation,” said University of Maine School of Law Dean Leigh Saufley. Saufley said she worked from home Wednesday morning because water pours into her office in the law school when it is raining.
The school has not been able to make technology upgrades that were needed during the pandemic to allow for simultaneous instruction of in-person and remote students and it would cost millions to seal windows, fix the roof and make the technology upgrades, Saufley said.
“The law school can’t grow,” she said. “We can’t bring in more students because the building restricts that. We can’t use the technology to make the classes more accessible. We can’t bring in other programs because the building doesn’t work and we would have to spend millions just to have people in the building.”
On Wednesday the Board of Trustees’ finance, facilities and technology committee unanimously approved a recommendation to the full board that the system enter into a lease at 300 Fore St., which now is the home of the Council on International Educational Exchange. The board will take up the recommendation at its May 24 meeting and if approved the law school could move into the new space as early as this fall.
The lease could cost the system up to $960,000 per year, not including operating costs, which are expected to add about $290,000 annually. The UMaine System owns 246 Deering Ave. and operating costs there are about $550,000 annually. Those could be reduced by about $330,000 annually if the building were vacated.
“I think it’s important to note for the public record that this isn’t just, ‘We have to get a better building,’” said James Erwin, chair of the board of trustees, during Wednesday’s meeting. “This is part of a pathway towards a sustainable, vibrant, distinctive offering in a new legal education marketplace. I strongly support this but I want to be clear what the implications are. It’s a much bigger deal than just moving to another building.”
The proposal comes as the system is planning for the construction of a new Maine Center building on the University of Southern Maine campus which would also house the law school. In October the system announced a historic $240 million investment from the Harold Alfond Foundation that would direct up to $40 million for the Maine Center building in addition to at least $30 million in matching capital funds. The system is in the process of raising the matching funds and there is no timeline for when they might break ground or when the building will open.
Some faculty outside the law school pushed back on the proposal Wednesday saying it isn’t a good use of public funds while the university plans for the new building.
“One question repeatedly raised by faculty and staff who have contacted me is that the building is not attractive, but is livable and soon to be replaced,” said Lydia Savage, president of the USM chapter of the Associated Faculties of the Universities of Maine, a faculty union, in an email. “Why spend this money to be in the fashionable high-rent downtown when we should be investing in faculty and students?”
USM shares a campus with the law school though the faculty union at USM does not represent law school faculty. Savage said the UMaine System and Board of Trustees seems concerned with finding efficiencies in other areas, such as a controversial proposal last year that would have saved $2.5 million annually by changing the health insurance plans for retired employees.
“I think this is a tone deaf and wasteful action,” Savage said. “Last year, UMS created chaos with retiree health insurance to save money. If they have that kind of surplus cash, they can hire people, increase wages for classified staff who qualify for SNAP and/or reduce tuition.”
One complicating factor is that the new building may be located at the site of the current law school. The other location being proposed would be near the Wishcamper Center and parking garage.
According to a written proposal that went to the committee Wednesday, the age, design and condition of the current law building limit the size of classes and make it “functionally obsolete.” It would require at least $20 million to make meaningful updates or renovations.
“Perhaps less critically, but still noteworthy, the facility also has been named among the 8 ugliest university buildings in the nation,” the proposal says. “This is obviously a challenge, rather than an advantage, to law student recruitment.”
Saufley said the law school has recently lost members of its faculty because of the difficulty of working in the current building. With many businesses having moved out of downtown office space during the pandemic, she said now is a good time for the law school to consider the proposed move. “There are just so many benefits from this temporary space and so many drawbacks to staying in a building that just doesn’t work anymore,” she said.