Here we go again. The University of Maine System doesn’t respond to the challenges we face.

Faculty and students gather on the University of Southern Maine campus in Portland on Oct. 9, 2014, for a “Student Speak-Out” held in response to an announcement of faculty cuts at USM. UMaine System trustees also voted to eliminate five USM degree programs that year. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer, File

Our state university system faces major challenges. Student enrollment declines, a backlog of capital needs and a lack of strong public investment have created a perfect storm that is damaging our university system. This moment calls for visionary leaders willing to work with the faculty, staff, students and community members to sustain and strengthen our campuses. Yet system leaders persist in ignoring the crucial roles faculty, staff and students play in Maine’s public universities.

I experienced the destructive process that played out at the University of Southern Maine in 2014 – the elimination of five degree programs, 26 faculty and countless staff members fired – cuts that left scars on USM. Faculty, staff and students argued against the cuts. Despite our best efforts and hours of public testimony to the board, the system eliminated programs, faculty and staff and tarnished USM’s reputation for years. And reputation matters in higher education – for admissions, employers and businesses, philanthropists and the communities we serve. Glenn Cummings worked to heal these wounds during his time at USM. We will be welcoming a new president who will benefit from Cummings’ collaborative efforts with students, faculty and staff to place USM in a much stronger position with record enrollment, philanthropy and capital investments. However, these accomplishments took years to achieve, and, notably, they were not a result of good system leadership.

Other universities in the system exhibit the same troubling trends. Recent system decision-making concerning the University of Maine at Farmington has failed to support the university for the gem that it is – a strong public liberal arts institution nestled in the foothills of an outdoor wonderland. Rather, the system announced the elimination of nine faculty positions. The next day, without search or consultation with UMF faculty and staff, the chancellor announced a two-year interim president; he chose someone who oversaw the dismantling of USM programs and firing of faculty and staff in the 2015 debacle. This stunningly callous appointment was followed by UMF students in affected programs, who lost their mentors and professors, being told they should take online courses.

Then we learn that the newly appointed president of University of Maine at Augusta has a concerning track record. In an astounding breach of confidence, system leadership withheld information from the search committee. I wish I was surprised by this breach of ethics, but it is part of a pattern of questionable ethical and moral decisions made by this system. Recall when UMaine System leaders sought unilaterally to degrade health care for thousands of retirees in a pandemic. Only after protests by retirees and a class action lawsuit was the system forced to restore retiree benefits. I remind Maine taxpayers that the search process for our current system leader was conducted in secret with scant faculty and staff participation. A small committee chose four finalists and only 34 people were allowed to meet with the finalists (after signing nondisclosure agreements), and the hire was made and announced by trustees.

That lack of effective, collaborative UMaine System leadership is why my colleagues, fellow union members and legislators worked to pass a bill giving faculty and staff minimal access to the system board of trustees via nonvoting seats on the board. We were both surprised and disappointed when Gov. Mills vetoed even this small gesture of cooperation and engagement.

We are not just employees of the system – we are taxpayers, alumni, donors, students and parents of students. It’s time for greater transparency in – and oversight of – our system’s administration. Our primary goal is clear: We want to educate the students of Maine. We do this best by listening to educators, staff and students and should not accept anything less than transparent and ethical behavior and collaborative practices. Current leadership in the UMaine System has not lived up to these goals; maybe the current storms will drive them in a better direction.

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