The selection of the next president of USM will have far-reaching consequences for southern Maine and the entire state. But to attract high-caliber candidates, willing to risk their professional and academic credentials in a job that seems a setup for failure, we must provide sufficient reward.

The USM presidency currently pays $203,000 per year, by many standards a good living, but not even half the national average compensation of $479,000 for a public college president, as reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education. In fact, using one of the few available standards to compare between states – the salary of the president of the state’s flagship university – Maine is not just below average, we consistently rank at the very bottom or second from the bottom of the list, with the UMaine Orono presidential salary of $250,000 per year. Is that frugality or is it a failure to invest in leadership?

Unless something changes, USM will continue to be uncompetitive in the marketplace for educational executive talent. The solution? Private donors could provide a one-time boost to the USM president’s salary. For just $1 million, the president’s salary could be doubled for a five-year period, enough time to significantly turn the university around. A salary package of $400,000 per year would attract an entirely different caliber of candidates to the position. Even a smaller supplement would make a big difference. What’s more, the privately-funded supplement could be tied to performance measures.

The USM presidency is a tough job: three campuses, an annual budget of more than $120 million, nearly 10,000 students, over 1,500 faculty and staff, financial decisions outside of the president’s control, declining enrollment, the shifting role of “bricks and mortar” universities, and the fast-changing demographics of southern Maine.

USM needs a president with keen financial skills, strategic thinking, boundless energy, abilities to both listen and empathize, the tact of a diplomat, the resolve to make hard decisions, and a vision for the university’s future.

A president who can rally business, government and nonprofit leaders around the university’s (perhaps changing) mission.

A president who can convincingly tell the story that the public university located at the heart of the region with over half of the state’s economy activity serves all of Maine. Individuals with such a combination of skills are rare.

And they are in high demand. In the college president marketplace, $200,000 doesn’t come close to attracting the extraordinary person needed for this job.

Those who argue against providing this salary boost while faculty and staff have to tighten their belts miss the point that nothing will do more to improve compensation and working conditions for USM faculty and staff in the long run than a president providing the leadership the institution so desperately needs.

Similarly, many people are rightfully upset that the past two USM presidents, after being removed from their posts, saw no pay decrease while doing “busy work.” This privately donated supplement would be different; it would be tied to the position. If removed from the presidential post, the individual would no longer receive the supplement.

Other colleges have embraced this idea. The first was Rollins College in Florida, which endowed a Distinguished Presidential Leadership Chair in 2001.

Even here in Maine, the compensation of UMaine’s president has been aided by private foundation funds. The independent USM Foundation, with over 50 endowments for professorships, scholarships, and other USM functions, could manage this USM Presidential Leadership Chair.

If this five-year experiment works, we then have several options. Continue the president’s compensation at that level with public money. Or seek private funds to permanently endow a salary supplement. Or perhaps USM will be on such a better course that the supplement is no longer needed because we can attract top-notch candidates at the $203,000 salary.

But for the next five years, we need to do something dramatic. Something game-changing. Doubling the president’s salary without using any public money would do that.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. This will be the third USM president hired in six years. We need different results, so let’s do something different.

This is an opportunity for philanthropists to do far more than give a building or endow a professorship; this is an opportunity to save the university. Compared to a building, this opportunity is cheap. Do we have any takers?

— Special to the Press Herald