University professors, by definition, know a lot of things about a lot of things.

But the leaders of a faculty coup against University of Southern Maine President Selma Botman clearly could use a refresher course in that not-so-newfangled thing called “email.”

Starting with Chapter 1: Know who your recipients are.

And Chapter 2: Never send anything (especially when you’re logged onto a public university’s email system) that makes you sound less like a learned scholar and more like a kid in a schoolyard.

“I don’t know these people!” exclaimed Harold Pachios, leafing through email printouts in his Portland law office Tuesday morning. “I don’t have any beef with them!”

Apparently it’s not mutual.

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It all started a week ago today, when USM physics Professor Gerald LaSala sent an email to USM’s Board of Visitors, on which Pachios sits. Attached to the email was a “no confidence” resolution aimed at Botman and signed by LaSala and 52 other faculty members.

Wrote LaSala, “Confidence in the current administration to lead and promote USM with integrity and competence is fragile and weak among all segments of the university community.”

Laura Foye, chairwoman of the 17-member community advisory board, didn’t respond directly to LaSala. But in an email sent Friday to University of Maine System Chancellor James Page, Foye and vice-chair Denise Taafe conveyed the board’s “unanimous support for President Botman” and her implementation of “the first substantive reorganization of (USM’s) academic structure in more than 30 years.”

Enter Pachios.

In his own lengthy email to LaSala, Pachios made it clear that he’s a big fan of Botman, whom he called “the best advocate USM has ever had” when it comes to connecting the university with the community at large.

Pachios also called LaSala’s remarks about the university’s leadership “plainly unhelpful” and “destructive.”

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Finally, he asked LaSala for “some evidence of mismanagement” by Botman, without which Pachios would “find it impossible to react to your letter in any meaningful way, let alone a positive way.”

Cue Professor Bill Gayton, who teaches psychology at USM and received a copy of Pachios’ response.

“You suggest ‘the need to evaluate real evidence’” against Botman, wrote Gayton. “Could you provide the ‘real evidence’ – your wording – that supports the (pro-Botman) conclusions you have made?”

Less than an hour later, Susan Feiner, a professor of economics and women-and-gender studies, chimed in to her fellow faculty members: “Personally, I don’t think we should respond as individuals to (Pachios’) letter.”

“I agree,” echoed Professor John Voyer, director of USM’s School of Business. “But you have to admit (Gayton’s response to Pachios) was a good one!”

Next up was psychology Professor William Thornton, who referred to a set of “fast facts” prepared by Feiner that focus on finances throughout the University of Maine System.

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“Perhaps the ‘fast facts’ distributed should be sent on to Pachios. Individually, by each of us, for his attention and a response : )” wrote Thornton.

Replied Lasala, “Except that the ‘Fast Facts’ apply to the entire UMS (University of Maine System), not just USM, and would not be helpful to the points we’re trying to make. Indeed, they might be interpreted as evidence that the issues are not Selma’s responsibility.”

Back to Professor Feiner: “Bill (Thornton), that’s fine with me. But fast facts are system wide. We’d need to be making the case that President Botman, in following the wishes/directives of the System, has weakened USM, created ‘crisis’ and etc. All of which is fine by me, but any of these communications need very careful attention to wording, framing of issues, and the rest.”

Feiner continued, “I think this is going to get very, very ugly. As in, someone publishing the salaries of all the petition signatories … and making hay about how highly paid we are, why we are whining, etc.”

Good call, professor! By Tuesday, a source whom Pachios refused to divulge had provided him with the stats on each of the 53 professors who signed the “no confidence” petition: On average, they’re 63 years old, have been with USM for 24.5 years and pull down an annual salary of $94,571.

Back to the emails …

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Feiner actually suggested the faculty group release their salary figures themselves as a pre-emptive move “comparing to administrators who come and go … and showing how faculty really are the center of the academic universe — since students come and go too.”

(Center of the academic universe? Now there’s a talking point.)

“I’m equally sure that this will require a huge amount of conversation,” concluded Feiner. “Probably best conducted off email.”

Or not.

Ten minutes after Feiner sent out her missive, Professor of Educational Leadership Lynne Miller finally looked at the email chain’s distribution list and alerted her colleagues that “Pachios has received all these emails.”

Oops.

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An hour later, Miller wrote, “This email list is the one we should use. It is composed of faculty names only.”

Oops again.

The chain continued throughout the day Saturday, featuring a discussion by several faculty members about whether their university emails are public record (that would be a “yes”) and whether they could be subpoenaed in a lawsuit (ditto).

And throughout it all, the messages kept landing … and landing … and landing … in Pachios’ inbox.

Fast forward to Saturday evening, when Professor Thornton logged back on with what he called “a few observations.”

“Most importantly, has Gayton received ANY reply, or even acknowledgement, from Pachios?” asked Thornton. “It seems like there has been plenty of time for some sort of response from an attorney, someone skilled in the art of crafting responses – perhaps not so quick/adept when not able to bill their time to someone.”

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(That should go over well with Thornton’s colleagues at the University of Maine School of Law.)

As for growing fears among his colleagues that their emails might somehow get them in hot water, Thornton observed, “With both hands and a flashlight, would administration be able to … identify us? Well, aside from all our names being in the group email address; but individually we could still all claim plausible deniability.”

He added, “Disclaimer: consult with a real attorney on this.”

Speaking of attorneys, Pachios at long last has been banished from the faculty dissidents’ virtual inner circle. Not a peep, in fact, since he typed out “What’s my deadline?” Sunday morning and hit the “send” button.

So what prompted his reply to LaSala’s letter to the Board of Visitors in the first place?

“I did it because I feel as a board member, I’m obliged to know what kind of mismanagement is going on – if any,” replied Pachios. “That’s why I did it. That’s part of my job. But I got more than I bargained for.”

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Contacted at USM on Tuesday, Professor Feiner said she feels “suitably chastened” now that her and her colleague’s emails are out there for all to see.

Meaning that whatever their next move against Botman might be, the “USM 53” will no longer plan it on the university’s computer system?

“People are still on it,” conceded Feiner. “And I’m going to let them know how stupid that is.”

Out in the schoolyard, they call that a teachable moment.

 

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: [email protected]

 


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