Maine Voices: Secret Amid Storms at UMF, UMA Feels Too Familiar
Here we go again. The University of Maine system does not meet the challenges we face.
Our state university system faces major challenges. Declining student enrollment, a backlog of capital needs, and a lack of strong public investment have created a perfect storm that is damaging our university system. This moment calls for visionary leaders willing to work with faculty, staff, students, and community members to sustain and strengthen our campuses. Yet system leaders persist in ignoring the crucial roles that faculty, staff, and students play at Maine’s public universities.
I lived through the destructive process that unfolded at the University of Southern Maine in 2014—the elimination of five degree programs, 26 faculty, and countless fired staff—cuts that left scars on the USM. Faculty, staff and students opposed the cuts. Despite our best efforts and hours of public testimony before the board, the system eliminated programs, faculty and staff and tarnished USM’s reputation for years. And reputation matters in higher education – for admissions, employers and businesses, philanthropists and the communities we serve. Glenn Cummings worked to heal these wounds during his time at USM. We will welcome a new president who will benefit from Cummings’ collaborative efforts with students, faculty, and staff to place USM in a much stronger position with record enrollment, philanthropy, and capital investment. However, these achievements took years to materialize and, notably, they were not the result of good system leadership.
Other universities in the system exhibit the same troubling trends. The system’s recent decision-making regarding the University of Maine at Farmington has failed to sustain the university for the jewel that it is – a solid public liberal arts institution nestled in the foothills of a country of the outdoor wonders. Instead, the system announced the elimination of nine faculty positions. The next day, without research or consultation with UMF faculty and staff, the chancellor announced a two-year interim president; he chose someone who oversaw the dismantling of USM programs and the firing of faculty and staff during the 2015 debacle. This incredibly ruthless appointment was followed by UMF students in affected programs , who have lost their mentors and teachers, being told they should take online classes.
Then we learn that the new president of the University of Maine at Augusta has a concerning record. In a stunning breach of trust, system management hid information from the research committee. I would have liked to have been surprised by this breach of ethics, but it is part of a set of questionable ethical and moral decisions made by this system. Remember when UMaine system leaders unilaterally sought to downgrade health care for thousands of retirees during a pandemic. It was only after retiree protests and a class action lawsuit that the system was forced to restore retiree benefits. I remind the taxpayers of Maine that the search process for our current system leader was conducted in secret with little involvement from faculty and staff. A small committee chose four finalists and only 34 people were allowed to meet with the finalists (after signing non-disclosure agreements), and the hiring was made and announced by the administrators.
This lack of effective and collaborative leadership of the UMaine system is why my colleagues, fellow union members and legislators worked to pass a bill giving faculty and staff minimal access to the board of directors of the UMaine system. system via non-voting seats on the board. We were both surprised and disappointed when Governor Mills vetoed this small gesture of cooperation and commitment.
We are not just employees of the system – we are taxpayers, alumni, donors, students and parents of students. It’s time to improve the transparency and oversight of our system administration. Our main goal is clear: we want to educate students in Maine. We do this best by listening to educators, staff and students and should accept nothing less than transparent and ethical behavior and collaborative practices. The current management of the UMaine system has not lived up to these goals; maybe the current storms will nudge them in a better direction.
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