University of Maine System chancellor candidates see need for improvements

Posted Jan. 20, 2012, at 7:05 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 20, 2012, at 8:46 p.m.
Rebecca Wyke, one of three finalists for the UMaine System chancellor position, speaks with UMaine President Paul Fergusen at an open interview forum in Wells Commons, Orono, Friday, Jan. 20, 2012.
Michael C. York | BDN
Rebecca Wyke, one of three finalists for the UMaine System chancellor position, speaks with UMaine President Paul Fergusen at an open interview forum in Wells Commons, Orono, Friday, Jan. 20, 2012. Buy Photo
James Page, one of three finalists for the UMaine chancellor position, listens to questions at an open forum in Wells Commons, Orono, Wed., Jan. 18, 2012.
Michael C. York | BDN
James Page, one of three finalists for the UMaine chancellor position, listens to questions at an open forum in Wells Commons, Orono, Wed., Jan. 18, 2012. Buy Photo
Meredith Hay, one of three finalists for the UMaine System chancellor position, speaks at an open interview forum in Wells Commons, Orono, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012.
Michael C. York | BDN
Meredith Hay, one of three finalists for the UMaine System chancellor position, speaks at an open interview forum in Wells Commons, Orono, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012. Buy Photo

ORONO, Maine — During question-and-answer sessions at the University of Maine this week, candidates for the University of Maine System chancellor position stressed accountability, openness and the need for overhauls of how the campuses in the system operate and cooperate.

The candidates, James Page, Meredith Hay and Rebecca Wyke, fielded questions from faculty and staff at several campuses and videoconferenced with those they weren’t able to visit during their two-day tours.

Wyke and Hay have drawn criticism in the past from colleagues who either have questioned their leadership or expressed frustration with the systems they represent. Page faced a question about a potential conflict of interest, which he quickly resolved.

Page visited the flagship Orono campus on Wednesday after touring southern Maine university sites the day before.

A northern Maine native, Page is the principal and CEO of Old Town’s James W. Sewall Co., a geospatial, engineering and natural resource consulting firm. He also is a member of the Camden National Corp. board of directors and has served on the boards of several area and state organizations.

Last year, Page was a finalist in the search for the University of Maine’s next president, a position awarded to now-President Paul Ferguson.

“Business as usual isn’t going to cut it anymore,” Page told the faculty and staff gathered at UMaine.

Page said he would consider drastic changes to the system office, which has about 160 people on staff.

“Somebody earlier described [the system office] as ‘an eighth campus with no students,’” Page said. “It’s 160 people — hardworking, energetic people — who generate zero credit hours.”

He argued that the organization and large size of the office makes for too much bureaucracy and can restrict rather than stimulate the change that will be necessary to help the university system through tough economic times.

One of the university system’s biggest faults, Page said, was its lack of accountability.

The system needs to do a better job of communicating with Maine taxpayers and legislators to assure them that they’re making a good investment and that their tax dollars are playing a part in improving Maine’s work force and economy, Page said.

Sewall Co. often works with the university on projects, including the effort to get offshore wind energy development in Maine. An audience member asked Page how he planned to deal with any conflict of interest between his potential role as chancellor and his leadership position in a company that provides assistance to one of the system’s universities.

Page said that he would resign from his position at Sewall Co. if selected to take on the chancellor position. His colleagues and the board of directors at Sewall would decide whether he should give up his ownership role and investments in the company.

“We will ensure that there’s no conflict of interest to whatever degree necessary,” he said.

The second candidate, Meredith Hay, the sometimes-embattled former executive vice president and provost at the University of Arizona, visited the Orono campus on Thursday.

Hay serves as special adviser to the chairman of the Arizona Board of Regents for Strategic Initiatives. She also held positions at the University of Iowa and within the University of Missouri System.

Hay faced criticism from colleagues who questioned her decision making, leadership and communication skills during the difficult financial times that marked her tenure at the University of Arizona from 2008 to August of last year.

Since 2008, the Arizona university system has lost 43 percent of its state appropriations and has had to make significant cuts.

“[The cuts] were horrific for all of us to live through,” Hay told the UMaine audience.

Hay said she has learned from her experience in Arizona and that the university system made its way through the worst of the financial crisis with relatively little damage — not a single faculty member was laid off. But about 600 staff positions were lost in that period due to attrition, she said.

The tumultuous time at the University of Arizona taught Hay “the value of effective communication,” she said. “Communication isn’t about quantity, it’s about quality.”

Hay said she sees potential for UMS to become a national model for public higher education, with the Orono campus at the helm as the “research crown jewel” of the system. The seven UMS campuses are relatively small and spread over a wide area of the state, making them a good barometer for other systems in the nation that might keep an eye on how changes affect UMS, she said.

Under her leadership, Hay said a “council of presidents” would take on an important role in the system. Each of the seven campus presidents would have a set of goals to meet, with the help of a council of provosts and chief financial officers on each campus.

When asked about a discrepancy between a cover letter, in which Hay states that she “served as the Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost at the University of Arizona,” and her resume, which correctly states her former title as “Executive Vice President and Provost,” Hay said she wasn’t sure how the mistake slipped into her cover letter.

Hay never held an executive vice chancellor position at the University of Arizona, she said, and attributed the misstatement to a typographical error.

Hay also is a finalist in the University of Vermont’s search for its next president. She will participate in a forum on the Burlington campus Monday, Jan. 23. Last year, she was a finalist for the University of Massachusetts presidency but eventually withdrew her name.

Wyke, the final candidate to visit Orono, is vice chancellor for finance and administration at UMS. The Rockport native has two degrees from the system’s flagship university, including a master’s in public administration — a degree program that was eliminated in the latest round of budget cuts at the university.

Wyke moved to UMS in 2008 after more than two decades working in state government, most recently as commissioner of the Department of Administrative and Financial Services.

Some UMaine faculty and staff showed frustration during Wyke’s question-and-answer session Friday. They called out Wyke on issues ranging from what they called the system’s burdensome bureaucracy to its use of the MaineStreet computer portal system.

When asked if the system offices were too large and cumbersome, Wyke said she didn’t see the size as a huge issue, arguing that a large system office keeps some of the management and workload off the shoulders of individual campus administrations.

“There’s always some frustration in a large organization toward those who lead,” Wyke said. “But part of how you resolve that is to visit the staff members, make sure you understand the issues that they’re facing.”

“I envision a system that functions better than it does today, both in terms of collaborations between institutions as well as administration,” Wyke said after the question-and-answer session. “[Those who are upset with the system] are not wrong. They’re right to be frustrated about some of the things they’re frustrated about.”

If selected as chancellor, she said she would seek out more efficient ways to run the system and its campuses in an effort to keep tuition rates affordable and dull the pain of budget cuts.

She also said she would be a great advocate among state lawmakers thanks to her experience as vice chancellor.

“Everything under the dome is about relationships,” she said, referring to the State House. “I have good relationships on both sides of the aisle.”

Wyke said the university system shouldn’t expect to see increasing state appropriations in the near future and needs to plan and evolve accordingly.

“We need to start thinking about how to reinvent our future to make sure that we can survive,” she said.

None of the candidates foresaw a merger of the public university system and the community college system in the near future. Such a move now, they said, would be a “disaster,” Page said, and likely would cripple both institutions, but they agreed collaboration would be vital to the success of both. One of the first steps should be to simplify and improve the process of transferring student credit hours between systems, they said.

The candidates also trumpeted distance education as an important aspect of the system’s campuses. They agreed that the face-to-face learning of the classroom setting is vital, but said it should be supplemented by improved online offerings.

Classes on the Web are especially vital in a state with a spread-out rural population that doesn’t have easy access to any of the system’s campuses, they said.

The system’s search committee will meet Sunday evening to discuss the candidates and review public comments, which may be submitted at http://www.maine.edu/board/ChancellorSearch2012.php. The deadline for comments is Sunday morning.

The resumes and cover letters of each candidate also may be found at that website.

After the committee picks out its favorite, it will make a recommendation to the system’s board of trustees, which will make its selection and enter into negotiations with the winning candidate. It should be four weeks or more before the board publicly announces the choice for the system’s next chancellor, according to committee members.

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