Theresa Sutton, chief executive officer of Maine Center Ventures. Credit: Courtesy of University of Maine System

The University of Maine System has tapped one of its former trustees to lead the push to create a new center to quickly meet the ever-changing workforce needs and boost economic development.

Theresa Sutton started in her new role as chief executive officer for Maine Center Ventures on Monday, the same day system officials announced her hiring. Her annual salary is $185,000, according to the system.

“My brain is wired to seek ways to solve problems and find the root causes,” Sutton said in explaining why she wanted the job. “This center is going to work at improving the quality of the human capital that we’ve got in a way that meets the needs of our employers and drives the economy.”

Maine Center Ventures is a tax-exempt entity tasked with building ties with Maine’s business communities and making Maine’s universities more responsive to their needs through the Maine Center for Graduate and Professional Studies.

The center would bring the master’s of business administration programs at the University of Maine and University of Southern Maine, as well as the Maine Law School, and the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service graduate programs and its Cutler Institute for Health and Social Policy under one roof in Portland.

Sutton most recently worked as vice president for customer service and partner operations at WEX Inc., a payment processing and information services company that caters to U.S. commercial and government vehicle fleets. Prior to that, she was an executive at CashStar and DAVO Technologies in Portland. She spent a decade in various leadership positions at L.L. Bean, ending in 2014.

She has a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard University and a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Sutton resigned from the university system board in August 2017 because “personal and professional obligations have become too great for me to be able to fulfill the requirements of my position on the board,” according to the resignation letter she sent to Gov. Paul LePage. She’d served 15 months on the board.

A board of trustees policy stipulates that former board members can’t “seek or hold” a system position until a year has passed since their service ended. Under that rule, Sutton couldn’t have applied for or taken the job before mid-August, unless it was on an interim basis.

To get around that policy after Sutton became the lead finalist, members of the board voted unanimously during a June 26 committee meeting to add an exemption “for the finalist of the MCV CEO position,” according to the meeting minutes.

“After scrutinizing the national search to verify the independence and fairness of the process, and after noting that Terry’s service on the UMS Board will have ended one year ago next month, the executive committee of the Board of Trustees approved exempting her from the employment prohibition for the remainder of her first year off the board,” board chairman James Irwin said.

System officials say 85 people applied for the job during a national search. A search committee interviewed eight applicants, sending four on to make their final pitch to the Maine Center Ventures board of directors.

Last summer, about two weeks after Sutton handed in her resignation, then-Maine Center CEO Eliot Cutler announced that he would resign. Cutler, a lawyer and former Maine gubernatorial candidate, said at the time that when he took the job, he planned on getting the center’s blueprint and business plan together, but that he didn’t plan to make a career out of running it.

George Campbell, president of the University of Southern Maine Foundation, served as interim CEO of the fledgling center in the wake of Cutler’s departure while system officials searched for a permanent leader.

Last summer, the Harold Alfond Foundation offered the university system a $7.5 million challenge grant to help push along the Maine Center effort.

The business plan developed by Cutler proposed locating the Maine Center in a yet-to-be-built $94 million building in Portland, and its digital courses will be offered in Orono and other campuses within the University of Maine System.

“Trustees will not consider construction of a Maine Center facility until after milestones and performance indicators have been met as part of a staged, multi-year program implementation,” a spokesman for the university system wrote in a email.

Chancellor James Page first proposed the center in 2013, and the Alfond Foundation funded the studies and groundwork that fleshed out the concept. The Maine Center would become the largest feather in the cap of Page’s One University initiative, an effort to drive cooperation and collaboration among campuses, focus institutions on their strongest programs, decrease duplication and make the system’s schools more competitive.

Page said Sutton is an ideal fit for the position because of her knowledge of Maine’s business landscape and her leadership experience in both large corporations and small startups.

“We are very pleased to put Terry’s skills and enthusiasm for the Maine Center initiative to work, engaging our faculty and helping to leverage their talents so that, working closely with our employer partners, we can build a stronger workforce and create competitive opportunity and advantages for Maine businesses,” Page said.

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.

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