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University of Maine System officials questioned by lawmakers after months of turmoil

Linda Coan O'Kresik
Bangor Daily News/file

Lawmakers grilled University of Maine system officials on Thursday over layoffs, faculty distrust and a mishandled presidential search at the University of Maine at Augusta that could cost the system more than $600,000.

Those issues have led faculty senates on multiple campuses to issue no-confidence votes in Chancellor Dannel Malloy, and finding a way to restore that trust was a major theme of a meeting of the Legislature's education committee on Thursday.

Democratic Rep. Rebecca Millett called on Malloy to treat faculty as professionals and respect their expertise, instead of describing their concerns as complaints or fears.

"And I really do think that's very problematic. And may perhaps be emblematic for why there's this significant lack of trust," Millett said.

Both Malloy and University of Maine System Board Chair Trish Riley acknowledged that they needed to find ways to improve communication with faculty, with Riley saying that she had already begun conversations to create new avenues for input.

As part of that effort, Riley said that beginning next month, the system will include a faculty representative at the table during Board of Trustees meetings. While the faculty member won't be allowed to vote or participate in executive sessions, they will be allowed to provide input and participate in discussions and deliberations.

"We will, at each board meeting, have a member at the table," Riley said. "We will put our toe in that water."

Multiple lawmakers called for Riley and the board to go even further and add staff and faculty positions to the system's Board of Trustees. Multiple bills to do so have passed the Legislature in recent years but were vetoed by Gov. Janet Mills.

At Thursday's meeting, Riley also announced that the system had extended Malloy's contract as chancellor through early July. The contract had been scheduled to expire at the end of June, but Riley said the board is still deliberating and hoped to make a decision at its next board meeting in July.

"We're reviewing comments and concerns. And we'll be discussing with him the future of that contract," Riley said.

Malloy again apologized for the mishandled presidential search at UMA, and said that he was looking to improve the process for new hires.

Riley also told Legislators that the missteps shouldn't define Malloy's tenure as chancellor, noting that he has helped to lead it through the pandemic and pushed through unified accreditation. She argued that those changes will help to provide a more sustainable future for some of the system's smaller campuses, which have seen substantial enrollment dips over the past decade.