Construction workers place the final beam for the University of Maine's new engineering, education and design center in February 2021. Credit: Nina Mahaleris / BDN

A new engineering and computer science college that the University of Maine System is creating is supposed to make courses from those disciplines more accessible to students at all seven of the state’s public universities.

But how the $150 million, philanthropy-driven endeavor will look is still uncertain, and faculty from the University of Southern Maine’s engineering program are worried their program will be subsumed by the larger University of Maine, which has long had an engineering specialty.

The new Maine College of Engineering, Computing and Information Science will house engineering programs from both the University of Southern Maine and the flagship University of Maine in Orono as well as UMaine’s computer science program. It will be located at the University of Maine in a new building that is currently under construction and would be overseen by a new dean position for which the system has three finalists lined up.

The initiative is propelled by a $75 million gift from the Harold Alfond Foundation. But many details are still in the works, including the specific programs the college would offer and where, how USM faculty would fit into a college housed at UMaine, and how a college that is supposed to span across campuses would fit into the full university system, said Joan Ferrini-Mundy, the president of UMaine and the university system’s vice chancellor for research.

Foundationally, however, the goal is to make the engineering resources from UMaine, with its wide array of labs, and USM, with its connections to the private sector, available to students from across the University of Maine System, Ferrini-Mundy said.

“We want the students who study engineering in the system to be able to have access to both of those experiences so that they can leave here and be the leaders that we need in these fields for Maine and beyond,” she said.

The new college would be the first of its kind in the university system, Ferrini-Mundy said. The system for years has discussed how to share more programs and resources across campuses, and Chancellor Dannel Malloy’s early push for a single accreditation for the university system — rather than individual accreditation for each campus — was aimed at making it easier for campuses to share faculty, resources and services.

“What we want to do is show the intentionality of the statewide focus and administratively build from the UMaine College of Engineering, but in new ways with new kinds of partnerships that are to be developed,” Ferrini-Mundy said.

Ferrini-Mundy said faculty have been central to developing the new college, and that a report that was finalized just ahead of last week’s board of trustees meeting full of new faculty feedback on the idea was part of the reason trustees delayed a vote on a final framework for the new college.

While new ideas can cause some anxiety, Ferrini-Mundy said the system has attempted to quell those concerns through an agreement that specified that USM engineering faculty would remain USM faculty and have control over their programming.

However, the USM faculty senate and the union that represents faculty from across the system rejected that agreement.

“This troubled ambiguity has the potential for the University of Maine to take over a USM program. This is what drew such visceral reaction from the USM faculty senate,” Carlos Luck, chair of USM’s engineering department, told university system trustees at their meeting last week.

Luck said USM’s engineering department is growing and that he and others from the department have been left out of the process of developing the system-wide college.

While engineering and computer science-related fields and occupations aren’t at the top of Maine Department of Labor lists for expected growth in the coming years, more than 5,000 new positions were created in those fields in Maine between 2006 and 2019, according to the university system.

As a result, the system wants to produce more graduates in those fields to meet the apparent demand, Ferrini-Mundy said.

“I want the Maine College of Engineering, Computing and Information Science to be the go-to place for students from Maine and from afar who want the kinds of programs that we have with really high quality with a lot of flexibility,” she said.

While the timeline for the new college is not set in stone, Ferrini-Mundy said she hopes a new dean will be in place by the fall and that academic work around the reorganization can begin after that.

University system trustees might take up the framework for the new engineering and computer science college at their July meeting, but that’s still uncertain, she said.

Sawyer Loftus is an investigative reporter at the Bangor Daily News. A graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he worked for Vermont Public Radio, The Burlington Free Press...