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UMaine system faculty say more communication is needed after years of deteriorating trust

Linda Coan O'Kresik
Bangor Daily News

The University of Maine System has been embroiled in controversy in recent weeks, with layoffs and a mishandled presidential search leading to staff across the system issuing votes of no-confidence against the system chancellor. But it's a situation years in the making, as staff say leaders have repeatedly failed to listen to their concerns, and have fought against efforts to add more faculty to the system's Board of Trustees.

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

"And he said, 'This information should be coming through you.' And I said, 'Where are we supposed to do that?'" Leduc said.

Leduc said for years, faculty communication with trustees has only been listed as a discussion item in just one board subcommittee. And even there, Leduc said, the board has cut off some faculty comments at times or simply moved on with little discussion. It's a situation that some staff say has only gotten worse in recent years, as they feel their concerns have largely been ignored on major university issues.

That lack of trust and communication has reared its head in recent weeks, as faculty groups on several campuses have issued no-confidence votes in Chancellor Dannel Malloy. Some staff have called for his resignation. The turmoil comes in the wake of layoffs and a mismanaged presidential search process at the University of Maine at Augusta that could cost the system more than $600,000 in future years.

"I think no-confidence votes are really a last resort," said Lydia Savage, a geography professor at the University of Southern Maine.

Savage said much of the current frustration stems back to the system's push for "unified accreditation" at all seven of the state's university campuses several years ago. Trustees argued the unification would allow campuses to more easily share resources and increase access to coursework.

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

"I think that kind of central control, it's much easier to feel distrustful about that," Savage said.

Some faculty said they reached a breaking point in late 2020, when officials proposed transitioning about 3,000 retirees away from their current group health insurance plan, and instead offered them a stipend on a private exchange.

Jim McClymer, a professor and president of the faculty union, said retirees worried that the new plan would result in major cost increases that they couldn't handle on a fixed income.

"And it took a really long time, lots of actions, and a lawsuit, to get them to reverse course," McClymer said. "At any point, the university could have come to us and said, 'We want to talk to you about some alternatives working for with health insurance,' and we could have worked on this as a partnership. I think they revealed, there was no partnership. They would do to us what they would do to us. And that has never been dealt with."

In recent years, lawmakers have passed two bills designed to boost staff input by adding faculty and staff to the system's board of trustees -- though the latest bill, introduced earlier this spring, wouldn't have allowed the staff members to vote. Both were ultimately vetoed by Gov. Janet Mills.

A spokesperson for the governor didn't respond to a request for comment. But in her veto letter, Mills argued the measure would go against state and university policies, and called it "bad public policy to authorize active employees to serve on a board that sets their salaries, governs their budget, and otherwise makes decisions that directly impact them."

Democratic state Representative Rebecca Millett, who sponsored the bills, said they wouldn't have been able to fix system leaders’ recent mistakes. But she said staff could have more of an opportunity to work with trustees on issues, instead of feeling forced to resort to a measure like a no-confidence vote.

"If we had been able to pass that legislation, then perhaps the response would have been more muted. At the minimum, that there would have been chances for these concerns to have been addressed in the right forum, rather than having to be so public. And maybe even have 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, reevaluate how that works, and how to make it work more effectively," Riley said. "And I think, again, I want to do that with them. And figure out what works best for both the trustees and the faculty."

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

Some faculty members say they're encouraged at the board's recent steps. But James Cook, a sociology professor at the University of Maine at Augusta, said fundamental changes are needed, too, including reassessing the system's current direction and centralization of authority.

"I hope the board and the Chancellor will take this opportunity to really radically review the assumptions that they've made about what Maine needs in order to move forward," Cook said.

Both faculty and system leaders agree that mending their relationship will be important moving forward -- particularly as the system faces potential enrollment and financial challenges in the years ahead.