Managing change is never easy, but it’s impossible without the right leadership.

The University of Southern Maine is in the midst of major transitions made necessary by a financial crisis. It is also in the early stages of a search process for a new president. With so much riding on the outcome of that search, every step should be taken to make sure that whoever emerges has the best chance to move the institution out of its cycle of cuts and retrenchment.

A lot is at stake. The institution cannot afford another failed administration. That’s why the student protest group #USMFuture should be invited to be part of the search process.

The group began in response to proposed cuts by President Theodora Kalikow, who slashed $12 million from the 2014 operating budget. #USMFuture was not able to stop the cuts from getting the approval of the University of Maine System trustees, but the organization has raised fundamental questions about the values that guided the cuts – questions that will have to be addressed for the institution to get its bearings after years of uncertainty.

A MATTER OF TRUST

Kalikow, an interim appointee, cannot provide this kind of leadership because too many people don’t trust her.

It doesn’t seem fair: Kalikow’s assessment of the long-term trends that are causing the university’s problems is correct. It’s true that Maine, like many states, has paid a smaller portion of the system’s budget over the last three decades, putting more of the onus for financing an education on students. Concern for students and families led the trustees to freeze tuition three years ago, creating pressure on administrators to find a way to cover inflationary cost increases with flat (at best) revenue. And enrollment at the university has declined, making the case for restructuring even stronger.

But while Kalikow has the authority to cut, she hasn’t convinced the students and faculty that she is also trying to preserve this important institution, not tear it down. The university needs someone who can get everyone to stop fighting and move in the same direction.

This attitude didn’t start with Kalikow. The profound mistrust of the administration goes back three presidents to the term of Richard Pattenaude, who overspent his budget, leaving the next administration to pay off the debts when he became chancellor of the university system.

His successor, Selma Botman, lost the confidence of the faculty, narrowly surviving a vote of no confidence. When it was revealed that she gave $1 million in discretionary raises to administrators while preaching austerity to educators, she was eased out of office.

VALUES

Kalikow’s priorities have also come into question, in part because during the USM crisis, while education programs were on the block, the chancellor’s office gave one administrator a $40,000-a-year raise and created a six-figure communications director position. People are rightly asking what these administrators value most.

We believe Kalikow when she says that the differences between her and the students and faculty are disputes over methods, not values, but she has not been able to communicate that to the large number of stakeholders whose cooperation she would need in order to lead. Articulating a vision for the institution, including discussion of the idea of a “metropolitan university,” should be left to her successor.

USM would be better off having the skeptics sitting in the search committee room contributing to the process than having them standing outside protesting. Including #USM Future in the search process would give the next president, and the institution, the best chance of success.