The search for the University of Southern Maine’s next president may soon be over.

Four finalists have either visited the school in recent weeks or will next week.

But the university’s search process has left some members of the USM community dissatisfied.

Faculty and students said they feel the school has chipped away at opportunities to participate in searches for senior administrators by making the process confidential until the eleventh hour, eroding already depleted trust in the University of Maine System’s administration.  

“A lot of people at USM have been shocked by the relative lack of transparency in hiring people for upper administrative roles,” said Wendy Chapkis, a professor of 25 years and chair of USM’s Women and Gender Studies and Sociology departments. 

James Erwin, a system trustee and chair of the search committee, said the panel has made only very small tweaks in the search process compared to previous searches and that this level of secrecy is necessary to attract high-quality candidates who may be worried about retribution if their current employers find out they are vying for a new position. 

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“We want the search to be successful and we don’t want any impediments to that,” he said.

The shift to a less transparent search process at USM is part of a national trend that experts have linked to the increased use of private search firms. And it follows a series of issues that have increased tension between USM faculty and the UMaine System’s administration, including the announced departure of outgoing President Glenn Cummings and a failed bill – vetoed by Gov. Janet Mills – to let faculty join the UMaine System’s board of trustees.

The original schedule for the search called for UMaine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy to publicly announce his decision in mid-April. After all the final candidates visit campus, the search committee will deliberate and pick three candidates for Malloy to choose from. USM is one of eight colleges within the UMaine System.

While the search committee would not release the names of the four finalists, the Press Herald obtained their resumes from faculty members.

All four finalists are working as college or university administrators in other states. They are Timothy Pinnow of Colorado Mesa University, Jennifer Orlikoff of Potomac State College, which is part of the West Virginia University System, Karin Ismaili of Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts and Jacqueline Edmondson of Penn State Greater Allegheny in Pennsylvania.

The Press Herald reached out to the four finalists Friday. Three were not immediately available to speak and one declined to comment, citing a request from USM not to talk about the search.

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During previous searches, finalist’s names and community forum schedules were released simultaneously a few weeks before they arrived on campus. The process changed for the current search, and candidates’ names were released one at a time to the USM community 48 hours before their respective arrivals.

Erwin said that is the policy of Academic Search, the firm the school hired to find the next president at a cost of $77,500.  

Academic Search officials could not be reached to talk about the search, but the contract between Academic Search and the UMaine System states that candidate information must remain confidential. 

The UMaine System has used outside consultants when conducting previous presidential searches, including the one that resulted in hiring Cummings. But each search firm comes with its own policies and recommendations.

One thing that is kind of odd about these firms is that they’re very big on keeping the identities of individual candidates as secret as possible,” said Shelton Waldrep, an English professor and chair of the faculty senate.  

“Faculty are not given a lot of notice before a candidate comes to campus and it can be difficult to arrange for a time in your day, because everyone is so busy, to go through the presentation and interact with the candidate,” Waldrep said.  

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Waldrep said the process has led faculty to wonder why they can’t get the full list of candidates and their schedules, and why they don’t have longer to ponder their reactions to candidates and fill out the surveys. After candidate presentations, faculty are given a few days to respond to surveys about them.

But Waldrep also said he believes the school and the search committee are acting in good faith and working in the best way they know to find a good candidate. “We have had access to the candidates, and we are able to ask them questions,” he said.  

Also unlike previous searches, candidate names are only made available to USM community members – students, staff, faculty and alumni – through USM’s password-protected portal, MyUSM. In the past, candidate names were announced publicly and sometimes even to the media, which is how some faculty think it should be.

“Taxpayers pay to have a system of universities in the state of Maine and the public should be aware of the major hires,” said Chapkis. “I understand they’re concerned about protecting the people they’re interviewing, but at what cost?” 

But Erwin said candidates strongly request that their names remain as confidential as possible and said the school has even had candidates withdraw from the search process when they found out there would be an open finalist process.

Riley Mayes, a junior commuter student, said the process has been confusing and frustrating and she doesn’t feel she has a lot of information on how candidates are being vetted and considered. 

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“I’ve talked to people on the search committee and it’s very closed doors,” she said. “I would like to be able to have more of a collaborative role in the decision-making process as a student, as a commuter student and as someone who values my time at USM.”

Nationally, searches for school administrative leaders have become more secretive over the past decade, according to Judith Wilde, chief operating officer and professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Virginia. Wilde has studied changes in higher education executive searches.  

Wilde said institutes of higher education are increasingly using search firms and many firms encourage confidential search processes, despite a lack of research showing that confidentiality yields better candidates. 

In March, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill into law shielding presidential searches at state colleges and universities from public records law. In the past, applicant names were available throughout the search process. Now they will only be available once an institution has chosen three finalists. Nebraska, Wisconsin and Tennessee have passed similar laws in the past decade.

But one Maine legislator wants the state to move in the opposite direction.

Rep. Ben Collings, D-Portland, introduced a bill last year to create more transparent search processes for UMaine System employees by prohibiting anyone involved in the search process from signing a nondisclosure agreement, among other things. The bill failed, but Collings said he still believes the university system should be using a more open search process.

It seems like a strange way for an institution with public finances to conduct themselves and I feel that you can have a more transparent and inclusive process that still attracts excellent candidates,” Collings said. “I’m more worried about the faculty, students and USM community than the concerns of the applicants.”


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