Think your job is tough? Put yourself in James Page’s shoes.

“It’s been eventful,” Page said in an interview Friday, just six weeks into his new job as chancellor of the University of Maine System. “You learn a lot very quickly about an organization, about the people who make it up, by being thrown off the deep end like this.”

To wit:

Two days after Page took over Maine’s university system March 20, The Portland Press Herald reported that 44 University of Southern Maine non-faculty employees received raises of 5 percent or more this year — despite staffing cuts, a three-year freeze of faculty pay and some $5.1 million in projected budget cuts at USM’s three campuses in the coming year.

Last week, embattled USM President Selma Botman “won” a no-confidence vote held by the university’s Faculty Senate after her detractors failed to reach the 251 votes (two-thirds of the entire faculty) needed to pass the resolution. Still, with 194 faculty members lining up against Botman and only 88 supporting her, it wasn’t exactly time to break out the confetti.

Then there was this head slapper, also last week, from the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting: “Hiring records from the University of Maine System show that loopholes, waivers, personal connections and political ties played a significant role in the appointment of seven state officials to some of the system’s highest-paying non-teaching jobs.”

Six of those seven, the center reported, parachuted into the University of Maine System from the twilight of former Gov. John Baldacci’s administration. And some of their qualifications for the new gigs were, shall we say, not exactly impeccable.

So, Mr. Chancellor, are we having fun yet?

“Are there things we need to do differently here? Absolutely,” Page said. “And are there things we’re going to change and move forward? That’s my job.”

And, to his credit, Page doesn’t appear shy about doing it.

One day after news of the USM “salary adjustment” program broke, Page suspended it.

Asked last week about the parade of Baldacci-era officials from the State House to the university system, he pledged to look into the system’s hiring practices with an eye toward fairness and, above all, complete transparency.

And the still simmering leadership crisis at USM?

Well, that rates a two-day road trip. This Thursday and Friday, Page will be at USM’s Portland and Gorham campuses to get a closer look at the chasm between President Botman, who insists she’s guiding the university through a much-needed structural overhaul, and faculty members, who claim she’s driving the place over a cliff.

“My trip (this) week is really to listen,” said Page, who spent late last week contacting various “campus constituencies” to schedule extended sit-downs throughout his visit. “If I talk more than 10 percent at any meeting, I’m talking too much.”

Page, the first chancellor in the University of Maine System’s history to have been born and raised in Maine and educated at one of the state’s seven universities, may well be the perfect guy for this more-than-academic challenge.

He grew up in Caribou and earned a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Maine at Fort Kent.

His master’s degree — in philosophy, of all things — came from St. Andrews University in Scotland. He then earned his doctoral degree, in linguistics and philosophy, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He knows his way around a college lectern — serving as an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Kansas from 1992 to 1997 and as an adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Maine since 1998.

But Page is also a businessman — before being hired as chancellor this spring, he was chief executive officer and part owner of the James W. Sewall Co., an international consulting firm based in Old Town.

In short, at a time when Maine’s university system needs a leader well-versed in both academia and business, Page speaks both.

And at a time when the long knives are out between those who teach at the state’s most troubled university and those who run it — USM’s enrollment has dropped more than 18 percent since 2002 — who better to negotiate an end to the hostilities than an expert in “analytic philosophy”?

“It’s problem solving,” Page explained. “Dissecting a problem, breaking it down into solvable parts and reassembling it while you’re doing the solutions.”

Page knows all too well the long-term hurdles facing the university system — he’s still digesting a 14-point “goals and actions” plan approved by the system’s trustees in January that ranges from freezing tuitions and fees to expanding (and thus redefining) Maine’s shrinking pool of potential college students.

Page’s biggest eye-opener to date: He recently learned that 260,000 adult Mainers, nearly a quarter of the state’s population, have some form of post-secondary credit yet still lack a degree.

“If you could tap a percentage of those folks,” he said, “the advantages for those individuals and ultimately for the economic betterment that their increased education could bring to the state could be enormous.”

But all of that will have to wait. First, Page has those fires down at USM to extinguish.

Some undoubtedly will urge Page this week to show President Botman the door. Others will insist it’s the faculty who are standing in the way of much-needed change — not just to USM, but to the entire state university system.

And square in the middle will be Page, who wades into this fight seeking not to “move hard one way or another,” but rather to bring all the warring sides together.

Impossible? Page doesn’t think so.

“People have been very vocal in their viewpoints (and) the upside of that is that people care a lot about the University of Southern Maine,” Page noted. “The passion that people bring to this debate — yes, it has a side which is not very pretty. But there’s also that side of deep commitment.”

Spoken like a true philosopher.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

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