Alfond Foundation Chairman Greg Powell speaks from the stage at Husson University's Gracie Theatre. Credit: Nick Sambides Jr. / BDN

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The half a billion dollar in grants that the Harold Alfond Foundation has pledged to several higher education and research institutions is an astronomical sum and a historic investment in Maine’s future.

The collection of gifts announced on Oct. 6 total over $500 million and will go to eight different recipients across the state. The focuses of this funding are critical: to grow Maine’s economy and workforce, and to support quality health care.

For example, the Roux Institute at Northeastern University, an exciting new initiative in Portland aimed at growing Maine’s technology and innovation economy, will receive $100 million — more than $60 million of which will go toward scholarships. The University of New England is receiving funding to support the construction of a new health sciences facility at its Portland campus, among other initiatives, as part of a grant that is being unveiled in greater detail on Tuesday.

The largest grant in the mix is going to the University of Maine System, to the tune of $240 million over 12 years. It’s not only the largest single donation in the history of the system or the Alfond Foundation, it’s also the largest gift ever given to a New England public education institution. Remarkable doesn’t begin to describe it.

Alfond Foundation Chairman Greg Powell and UMS Chancellor Dannel Malloy explained to the BDN how the grant was connected to the system’s push for a unified accreditation across the state’s seven universities that promotes collaboration, not competition, between the campuses.

“We love what the chancellor and the Board of Trustees have been able to accomplish in approving unified accreditation,” Powell said. “Unified accreditation means teamwork to us, and Mr. Alfond loved teamwork.”

That emphasis on teamwork and the longstanding push toward a more unified system has been a good one, but has not happened fast enough. This investment would seem guaranteed to speed up that process.

Of the UMS grant, $75 million will go toward creating a College of Engineering, Computing and Information Science across multiple campuses of the system.

As George Jacobson, a professor emeritus of biology, ecology and climate change at UMaine said in a recent BDN story, “If we don’t have students prepared on the cutting edge, Maine will just not be able to keep up.”

The fact that the largest portion of the UMS grant, $90 million, is going toward athletics may raise some eyebrows. We certainly wouldn’t blame UMS retirees for being frustrated about a recent shift in their health care coverage while millions of dollars go to athletic facilities. But the need for investment in these facilities is starkly evident in remarks from University of Maine Athletic Director Ken Ralph, this presents an important opportunity to bolster equality for women’s teams and their facilities, and the Alfond Foundation has a long history of supporting athletics at the University of Maine.

We can’t overstate how valuable it is for the Alfond Foundation to step in and step up with this level of investment, at this time. With the budgetary challenges and uncertainties that have accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic, we have a hard time imagining a more critical moment for such action.

“Our state faces unprecedented challenges,” Powell said in the press release announcing the grants. “In the face of these challenges, we still see a bright, prosperous future for the people of Maine. Today’s grants are to vital, high-performing Maine institutions who will help build that future.”

These grants may not be specific to pandemic recovery, but we have little doubt they can and will play a role in charting Maine’s post-COVID course. One of the things our state and our country has learned from federal coronavirus relief efforts is the importance of flexibility in how funds are used to address rapidly evolving challenges, and the need to adapt with shifting realities.

Surely they are already having these conversations, but we cannot emphasize enough how important it is that the foundation and the grant recipients continue to look for ways that this fantastic gift can factor into Maine’s long-term future, while also helping to address some of the more immediate challenges and uncertainties during the ongoing pandemic.

The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...