The new president of the University of Maine at Augusta won’t start until Aug. 1. But already his tenure is in trouble — and university officials, including the chancellor, have no one to blame but themselves.

Michael Laliberte was announced as the university’s new leader — its fifth president in less than a decade — at the beginning of April, following a six-month search by a search committee, with the help of Storbeck Search, a higher education consulting company that has faced criticism for two of its recent searches.

But as Laliberte was beating out other candidates for the top job at UMA, he was facing questions about his leadership from faculty and students at the State University of New York at Delhi, where he had been president since 2016.

University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy introduces new University of Maine at Augusta President Michael Laliberte at Randall Hall in April. Malloy knew of the no-confidence votes at Laliberte’s former school, the State University of New York at Delhi, before appointing him to lead UMA. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

In September 2020, the Kennebec Journal reported last week, the faculty and student senates at SUNY-Delhi voted to have a committee investigate Laliberte’s actions as president, citing “a lack of accountability, lack of fiscal responsibility, lack of shared government, lack of communication, lack of ethical behavior, human safety concerns and human resource concerns.”

Around this time, there were allegations of four serious violations on campus of the Public Employees Safety and Health Act of 1980, which enforces federal and state workplace health and safety standards.

After a year in which they said nothing was done to address their concerns, faculty and staff at the school voted in October 2021 that they had no confidence in Laliberte’s leadership, and that he should resign.

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According to The Daily Star newspaper, the minutes of the meeting where the vote was taken “cite several factors for the senate’s vote including concerns of leadership, previous consultation, financial concerns, shared governance concerns, an alleged culture of disrespect and workplace violence.”

The chancellor of the University of Maine System, Dannel Malloy, and the chair of the search committee, Sven Bartholomew, a UMA trustee, knew about the allegations and the no-confidence vote, a spokesperson told the KJ. But they did not inform the other members of the search committee, nor did they give the information to faculty who were taking part in the selection process.

In a statement last week, the spokesperson said Laliberte was chosen based on his experience in higher education and the “overwhelming support” of the UMA community following on-campus interviews.

But most of the faculty and students had no idea of the allegations against Laliberte and the uproar he faced during his final years in at the SUNY school, even as they participated in public forums on the presidential search and eventually voted on the final four candidates. Apparently, no one in power thought they had a right to know.

Now, they are left to wonder how well the search committee vetted their new hire, and whether they’ll face the same problems that their counterparts in New York endured.

It makes for an awful start for Laliberte, and brings uncertainty — again — to the president’s office at UMA.

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Since Allyson Handley stepped down in 2014, there had been little continuity in the leadership at UMA, with a number of short-time presidents, interim and otherwise, until 2017, when the university hired Rebecca Wyke, who served until last August.

It’s hard to make progress with so much turnover, and it’s important that UMA find a leader with some staying power.

Laliberte could still be that person. But by withholding information, the chancellor and others made it far less likely.

The UMA community has every reason to be angry, and the university’s leadership has a lot to answer for.

 


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