Professors in Maine’s university system say relations with administrators have deteriorated for years

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The University of Maine system has been embroiled in controversy in recent weeks, with layoffs and a mishandled presidential search leading staff across the system to issue votes of no confidence in the system’s chancellor.

But it’s a situation that’s been brewing for years, as staff say leaders have repeatedly failed to listen to their concerns and fought back against efforts to add more faculty to the board of trustees. system.

Lisa Leduc, a professor at the University of Maine at Près Isle, became a faculty representative on the board six years ago. Even then, she remembers how difficult it was to make her voice heard. She recalls one retreat, when then-Chancellor James Page was upset that several groups of faculty had sent a letter to the board raising their concerns.

“And he said, ‘This information should come through you.’ And I said, ‘Where are we supposed to do this?’ Said Leduc.

Leduc said that for years, faculty communication with administrators was listed as a topic for discussion in only one board subcommittee. And even there, Leduc said, the board sometimes cut off some faculty comments or just continued with little discussion. It’s a situation that some staff say has only gotten worse in recent years, as they feel their concerns have been largely ignored on key university issues.

This lack of trust and communication has surfaced in recent weeks, as faculty groups on multiple campuses cast votes of no confidence against Chancellor Dannel Malloy. Some staff members have called for his resignation. The turmoil comes following layoffs and a mishandled presidential search process at the University of Maine at Augusta that could cost the system more than $600,000.

“I think votes of no confidence are really a last resort,” said University of Southern Maine geography professor Lydia Savage.

Savage said much of the current frustration stems from the system’s push for “unified accreditation” across the state’s seven college campuses several years ago. Administrators argued that unification would make it easier for campuses to share resources and increase access to courses.

But Savage said many professors are already working together on cross-school collaboration, and concerns about the plan have grown as the system has recently taken on even more authority, such as supervising new hires on each of the campuses. of the system. Professors at the University of Southern Maine also pushed back on a recent push for a new statewide engineering school.

“I think that kind of central control, it’s a lot easier to be wary of that,” Savage said.

Some professors said they reached a breaking point at the end of 2020, when officials offered to remove about 3,000 retirees from their current group health insurance plan, and instead offered them a stipend on a private exchange.

Jim McClymer, professor and president of the teachers’ union, said retirees feared the new scheme would lead to significant cost increases that they could not manage on a fixed income.

“And it took a long time, a lot of action and a lawsuit to get them to change course,” McClymer said. “At any time, the university could have come to us and said, ‘We want to talk to you about alternatives for working with health insurance,’ and we could have worked on that in partnership. I think they revealed there was no partnership. They would do to us what they would do to us. And it was never fixed. »

In recent years, lawmakers have passed two bills aimed at boosting staff contribution by adding faculty and staff to the system’s board of directors — although the latest bill, introduced earlier this spring, does not would not have allowed staff members to vote. The two ultimately vetoed Governor Janet Mills.

A spokesman for the governor did not respond to a request for comment. But in his letter of veto, Mills argued that the measure would run counter to state and university policies, and called it “bad public policy to allow active employees to sit on a board that sets their salaries, governs their budget and otherwise makes decisions that directly impact them.”

Democratic state Rep. Rebecca Millett, who sponsored the bills, said they would not have been able to fix recent mistakes by system leaders. But she said staff could have more opportunities to work with administrators on issues, instead of feeling pressured to resort to a measure like a vote of no confidence.

“If we could have passed this legislation, the response might have been more muted. At the very least, there would have been a chance that these concerns would have been addressed in the correct forum, rather than having to be so public. And maybe even avoided it,” Millett said.

System leaders appear to be trying to mend the frayed relationship. The system’s new board chair, Trish Riley, said after her election last month she began reaching out to faculty to find ways to improve communication and work together.

“And we can, I think, reassess how it works and how to make it work more efficiently,” Riley said. “And I think, again, I want to do that with them. And figure out what works best for administrators and faculty. »

Malloy also acknowledged that although he has held several town halls and listening sessions in recent years, more communication is also needed from his office.

Some faculty members said they were encouraged by the recent actions taken by the board. But James Cook, a sociology professor at the University of Maine at Augusta, said fundamental changes were also needed, including reassessing the system’s current focus and centralizing authority.

“I hope the board and the chancellor take this opportunity to radically revisit the assumptions they’ve made about what Maine needs to move forward,” Cook said.

Faculty and system leaders agree that it will be important to mend their relationship going forward, especially as the system faces potential enrollment and financial challenges in the years to come.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.

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