The University of Maine System has hired two-time independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler to make the case for its new venture, but also to devise exactly what that new venture is.

We know its broad outlines: Unify, well sort of, the university system’s two graduate business programs (located in Orono and Portland) and its law school (located in Portland). Cutler’s task over the next year-and-a-half will be to determine exactly what the union looks like long-term in a way that encourages collaboration among the business and law schools; results in opportunities for graduate students to gain knowledge — academic and applied — in both subject areas even if their degree, an MBA or a JD, reflects only one in name; and boosts the number of graduates with business and legal expertise.

This union won’t be a school that grants degrees. The existing business and law schools must retain their respective accreditations, which means adhering to specific curriculum standards that apply to business and law schools across the country. So, for now, this venture is the Professional and Graduate Center Initiative. The exact form it ultimately takes isn’t yet known.

“There’s nothing really exactly like this anywhere in the country, which I think is very exciting,” Cutler said Wednesday in a meeting with the BDN editorial board. He described his task as “taking this from a developed concept to a thing.”

The concept has been in the works for about a year-and-a-half, and the rationale behind it is logical.

MBA students have complained of limited course offerings, and a taste of legal education, more easily accessed, could expand the course catalog in a useful way. Plus, post-secondary education largely remains divided into disciplines with limited overlap while the working world requires interdisciplinary thinking. It helps if a lawyer representing business clients has business knowledge and if a business manager has a grip on applicable laws and regulations.

But “right now, you have to look pretty hard to find some examples of collaboration” among law and business school faculty, Cutler said.

Another part of the rationale involves responding to Maine’s workforce needs. A qualified, capable workforce is requirement No. 1 for growing Maine’s economy, and Cutler and Chancellor Jim Page say they want the University of Maine System to meet the demand for managerial-level people who can drive businesses’ growth and, in turn, the growth of Maine’s economy. A market study the university system commissioned as part of preparing for this initiative found there’s a desire in the Maine business community, especially in the Portland area, for mid-level and senior managers with business and law expertise.

And Maine’s labor market projections bear this out. The state Department of Labor projects that occupations requiring master’s, doctoral and professional degrees will see some of the highest growth rates in the coming years, accounting for 14 percent of the 15,000 new jobs projected through 2022. The largest number of job openings requiring post-secondary education projected through 2022 are for “general and operations managers,” according to the labor department.

Maine lags every one of its New England neighbors in the percentage of its residents with bachelor’s degrees and more advanced credentials. Maine urgently needs to change this reality, and this includes boosting achievement at the graduate level.

At the same time, the university system can’t lose sight of things it can do to boost bachelor’s-level attainment in Maine — namely, to improve first-to-second year retention and graduation rates that are unacceptably low. With time, the approach being taken with business and law degrees — an increased emphasis on interdisciplinary learning, internships and greater involvement of professionals in students’ education — should filter down to the undergraduate level.

Another caveat: The University of Maine System can’t allow its business and legal initiative to evolve into another administration-intensive structure in a university system that is already top-heavy.

In short, the University of Maine System has the chance to use $1.75 million in private money to energize two key graduate programs in ways that will make them more relevant to Maine’s economic future. It should make the most of the opportunity.

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...