When I was a child, I used to dream about pitching in the major leagues. In college, I’d fantasize about writing a novel.

But when I grew up, I had a new dream job: Register of Probate.

You get paid $40,000 a year and nobody knows what you are supposed to be doing all day. You are only answerable to the voters, and they couldn’t tell a good register from a bad register with a road map, so as long as you stay out of the crime news, you’re golden.

Now I realize that I set my sights too low. My new dream job is former president of the University of Southern Maine.

In that job you make five times what the Register of Probate gets, and you do even less.

The last two have been given important-sounding tasks for their $200,000 a year. Selma Botman was charged with completing a study on attracting more foreign students to Maine’s public universities, even though the university system had already hired a recruiting consultant to do just that. Her 39-page report made the Alexander Group’s welfare study look like solid scholarship.

Now soon-to-be-former-interim-President Theo Kalikow will transition to a newly created position of acting vice chancellor of the University of Maine System, undertaking a systemwide community engagement initiative that will conclude, coincidentally, when Kalikow’s contract ends next year. I don’t know what a “systemwide community engagement initiative” is, but I bet I could lead one and still have time to be Register of Probate.

Kalikow’s new assignment, like Botman’s two years ago, is an unspoken acknowledgment from the Chancellor’s Office that USM desperately needs a leadership change even though there is currently a leader under contract. We live in the era of the super manager, where it’s sometimes seen as better to pay someone a big salary not to run your organization than it is to pay the wrong person to show up every day.

In a for-profit company that may be the right call, and the proof is in the profits. But when you are talking about a university president (or Register of Probate for that matter), it’s harder to know what benefit you’re getting by paying top dollar for management talent.

There is ample research that shows people live better lives when they get a college education, but how much credit should go to administration? As we churn through USM presidents faster than new restaurants in the Old Port, it’s worth asking what a successful administration would look like.

In the education business, the bottom line is not the only bottom line. The university could balance its budget while doing a terrible job educating the people of southern Maine.

Enrollment and graduation rates are not necessarily the best way to measure the success of a school that serves many students who are completing degrees and acquiring skills while they are working full time, often while raising families.

Since the research shows that completing a degree is what makes a difference in people’s lives, maybe the university should measure its success by the number of degrees it awards to people who will stay around as teachers, nurses and other contributors to the general quality of life. Giving people of all economic means the ability to lead richer lives and enrich their communities should be the ultimate goal.

The plan is to replace Kalikow with another interim president and conduct a national search to find a permanent president, a process that could take a year or more. In the meantime, the university and its students can’t afford to wait for someone to come in and hope he or she has all the answers. And they definitely can’t afford another year of fighting between the faculty and administration over the right way forward.

The idea of organizing USM as a metropolitan university, which sounds like a desirable and achievable plan, has been set back because it has looked too much like the administration’s baby. There hasn’t been enough trust or respect between the faculty and administrators to accomplish something that complicated.

The next president will have a hard job, but also a lot to work with. The university is full of very smart people who have a strong interest in its success, and it is in the economic hub of the state where it will continue to attract students of all ages.

Can a super manager get everyone to stop fighting and pull in the same direction?

Maybe, but if not, there’s always a job waiting for the ex-president. You can’t beat the hours or the pay.

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at [email protected]

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