In this Aug. 24, 2020, file photo, the University of Maine black bear outside of Memorial Gym is decorated in a blue mask. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The University of Maine System said Wednesday it will receive $240 million from the state’s largest philanthropy, the largest investment ever made in a public educational institution in New England.

The $240 million gift is also the largest one out of $500 million in gifts the Harold Alfond Foundation pledged on Tuesday to a variety of higher education and research institutions around the state as part of a long-term initiative to create future jobs and improve Maine people’s skills.

The investment over 12 years will allow the University of Maine System to establish a $75 million College of Engineering, Computing and Information Science that serves multiple campuses in the university system. It will pay for new undergraduate engineering programs at the University of Southern Maine, improvements to the engineering education infrastructure at the University of Maine in Orono and graduate engineering programs offered in Portland by the University of Maine.

Some $20 million will pay for initiatives aimed at improving student retention at Maine’s universities, where a sizable portion of students leave before they graduate.

A $55 million portion of the gift will help along the development of the new Maine Graduate and Professional Center in Portland, including a new building on the USM campus that will house law and business programs. That initiative began in recent years with the help of money from the Harold Alfond Foundation.

And the largest portion, $90 million, will go toward building new athletic facilities at UMaine and upgrading existing ones. 

More on University of Maine system gift

The University of Maine System expects to raise another $170 million to supplement the Alfond Foundation gift.

The multi-campus engineering college is an evolving concept, with a goal of making an engineering degree a possibility for students starting out at a campus without an engineering program, said University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy. The hope is to grow Maine’s supply of in-demand engineers as more engineers in the state reach retirement age.

“It’s easier to keep an engineer trained in our state than it is to attract someone who has gotten their degree in another state to come to Maine,” Malloy said.

Asked why the largest portion of the foundation’s gift will pay for athletic facility improvements, Malloy and UMaine Athletic Director Ken Ralph said athletics have been an important part of the legacy of Harold Alfond, the Maine shoe magnate whose assets helped the foundation become Maine’s largest philanthropy after his 2007 death.

“Quite frankly, our athletic facilities here are just not up to the standard of a state flagship institution, and not indicative of the level of quality we want to have here in the state of Maine,” Ralph said.

Improved athletic facilities at UMaine could serve as a recruitment tool, because they’ll be capable of hosting high school championship games they currently can’t accommodate, bringing high school students to the Orono campus, Ralph said.

“We no longer are really hosting any championships at the high school level or youth club levels because our athletic facilities have fallen by the wayside to such a degree,” he said.

The improvements the foundation money will fund will affect all of UMaine’s 17 varsity sports, and will advance gender equity, Ralph said. For example, he said, UMaine’s women’s soccer team currently plays on a field in the baseball stadium’s outfield.

“We are not providing those women with a quality, Division I experience, and it’s not what we should be doing,” he said.

The $240 million gift will also be the single largest gift in the history of the Harold Alfond Foundation.

Foundation Chair Greg Powell said the university system “is perfectly poised to set new standards for how public higher education serves students and at the same time partners with employers in the pursuit of economic development and opportunity.”

The other institutions receiving the $500 million in grant money are The Roux Institute at Northeastern University, the University of New England, Thomas College, FocusMaine, Colby College, Waterville Creates! and The Jackson Laboratory.

FocusMaine, a private sector-led initiative aimed at job growth announced Wednesday that it received $5.18 million to expand job-creating efforts in life sciences, aquaculture, and agriculture.

Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated the amount of the award given to FocusMaine.