A prominent Biddeford-born philanthropist whose California-based foundation for education and the arts has granted millions of dollars to the Maine Community College System wrote a letter this month to Gov. Paul LePage admonishing him for pressuring the system’s president into resigning.

John Fitzsimmons announced on Jan. 14 he would step down after 25 years as the community college system’s president – after a warning from LePage that the system would “feel the wrath” if he didn’t resign.

Two days later, Bernard Osher, founder and treasurer of The Bernard Osher Foundation, told the governor he found the threat “more vindictive than constructive.”

Osher, in his letter, lauded Fitzsimmons’ leadership during the system’s transition from technical colleges to a community college system – an initiative that the foundation supported with $8 million. He also praised Fitzsimmons’ fundraising effort to match a $1.5 million scholarship pledge from the foundation. Because Fitzsimmons solicited the commitments in less than a year, the foundation added $500,000 to its grant, Osher said.

SUPPORT WILL CONTINUE

“We greatly regret his resignation and the intemperate manner in which it was achieved,” he wrote.

Messages left Wednesday with the governor’s staff seeking comment from LePage were not returned.

Mary Bitterman, president of the San Francisco-based Osher Foundation, said the letter does not mean the foundation would be less willing to provide funding for the system in the future.

“While we have been disappointed and, in fact, saddened by the intemperate manner in which Dr. Fitzsimmons’ resignation was obtained, our support for the System that he so ably led – with intelligence and integrity – remains strong and constant,” she wrote in an email Wednesday.

Bitterman did not respond to additional questions, including whether Osher was available for an interview.

A Biddeford native and Bowdoin College graduate, Osher began his business career by managing his family’s hardware store. He went on to work for New York financial services firm Oppenheimer & Co., before becoming the founding director of World Savings Bank in California.

CONCERN UNDERSTANDABLE

In 1977, he founded The Bernard Osher Foundation, which provides grants to colleges, universities and other nonprofit organizations for adult learning, to integrative medicine, arts and other educational programs, and for scholarships.

Osher’s letter to LePage indicates that copies were also sent to top officials at public and private colleges and universities throughout the state, as well as state and congressional politicians and the heads of other philanthropic foundations.

However, the first person on that list, Robert Clark, chair of the Maine Community College System’s board of trustees, said Wednesday he had not received or heard about the letter.

Clark said the Osher Foundation has been one of the biggest and most consistent financial supporters of the college system.

“It’s not surprising that foundations that have made substantial investments in the Maine Community College System are concerned” about the sudden leadership change, Clark said.

He said Fitzsimmons, who will continue to work with the system in a fundraising capacity through the summer, plans to reach out to Osher and other foundations that work with the system.

“We’re appreciative of the support from the Osher Foundation and look forward to our continued relationship with them,” Clark said.

The board of trustees announced last week that the system’s general counsel, Derek Langhauser, would serve as interim president, starting Feb. 16, and that it would launch a national search for a permanent president in March.

LePage called for Fitzsimmons’ resignation as he rolled out his proposed state budget, which flat-funded the system. The governor criticized Fitzsimmons for backing out of the Bridge Year Program, which allows high school students to earn college credits before graduating, although the system had recently decided to resume participating in the program.

LePage also faulted Fitzsimmons for not yet having a system for transferring credits from the community colleges to other schools. System officials have said they expect that to be in place by May.

Since the governor’s remarks, the board of trustees – whose 13 members were all appointed to their most recent terms by LePage – have supported Fitzsimmons, who said he decided to step down for fear that the governor would “punish the system” if he stayed.