At a time when many of Maine’s colleges and universities are struggling to attract students, a technology entrepreneur is making a $100 million bet that the state needs a new graduate school, one focused on preparing students for a digital economy and jump-starting a start-up culture in Northern New England.
Northeastern University will announce on Monday that it is launching a satellite graduate campus in Portland with a $100 million investment from Dave Roux, a Silicon Valley investor and Maine native. The graduate school and research center, is scheduled to accept its first batch of students this fall, and will be named after Roux and his wife. It will be called the Roux Institute at Northeastern University.
More rural parts of the country are losing out to innovation epicenters, such as Boston, San Francisco and Seattle, because they don’t always have the talent and resources to compete, Roux said. He wanted to create a program to train more data scientists and computer programmers in Maine to focus on the applications of artificial intelligence on health sciences. The hope is the research done at the institute will help spinoff companies into the region and drawn other business to the Portland area, Roux said.
“Does the world need another university?” said Roux, who is currently chairman of BayPine, a Boston-based investment firm. “The world doesn’t need an average university doing average stuff. This is so rare, so valuable. I think it as an opportunity machine, disguised as an academic institution.”
Roux said he spoke with 14 universities across the country over the past two years in search of an institutional partner and found Northeastern’s entrepreneurial attitude, its employment-focused programs and its experience operating satellite campuses, appealing.
Northeastern has in the past decade expanded beyond its Huntington Avenue campus in Boston and opened graduate-level programs in Charlotte, Seattle, San Francisco, Toronto and is in the process of launching in Vancouver. Those campuses enroll 2,500 graduate students.
Northeastern expects the Portland campus to start with about 100 students and expand to 1,000 students in five years and 2,600 students in a decade. Ten organizations, including L.L. Bean, MaineHealth, and the Jackson Laboratory, have agreed to become founding corporate partners and agreed to send their workers to the institute and offer students employment training as part of their education, according to Northeastern officials.
“The impact of the Roux Institute will reverberate across the region for generations to come,” said Joseph E. Aoun, the Northeastern president in a statement. “It will serve as a national model for expanding growth and innovation, and reducing inequality.”
But entering the Maine higher education market could present numerous challenges.
Maine’s aging and slow-growing population means that many of the state’s colleges and universities are struggling to enroll students. Throughout New England small, private colleges are facing increased financial pressures in part due to demographic shifts, and several have been forced to shut down or find larger partners.
For the past several years, the University of Maine has advertised on billboards throughout New England for students, promising them financial aid to help lower out-of-state tuition costs and lure them to Maine.
Roux said he and Northeastern officials have spoken to other Maine colleges and universities about creating a pathway for undergraduate students to complete their graduate education at the institute in less time and for less money.
Northeastern plans to offer Maine students scholarships to attend. Despite the demographic challenges in the state, Roux said he expects the campus will have no trouble attracting students.
“I am super confident that we are going to have a ton of learners,” he said.
A new university will likely bring some competition, but Roux and his team have met with higher education officials throughout Maine in recent years and expressed a desire to find ways of collaborating, said James Page, who was the chancellor of the University of Maine system until last summer.
Roux did not approach the Maine public university system about leading this graduate program, because he was looking for a partner with a marquee name and a national reputation with experience operating such a graduate research campus, Page said.
Maine’s public university system is trying to expand its research capabilities, and this Northeastern campus could offer opportunities for students and for faculties to work together, he said.
“Any program that can bring new young people, who are talented, who are educated . . . will be a very good thing for the state,” Page said. “This is seen as a real opportunity for higher education in Maine.”
James Herbert, president of the University of New England, said he has been assured that Northeastern has no plans to expand into undergraduate programs on its Portland campus, so there is likely to be more opportunity for collaboration instead of competition.
“We’re excited about it,” Herbert said.
The Northeastern Portland campus will still need regulatory approval, said Barbara Brittingham, the president of the New England Commission of Higher Education.
Northeastern has already started initial conversations with the commission, she said.