Faculty deliver no-confidence petition targeting University of Southern Maine president

Posted April 05, 2012, at 2:29 p.m.
Selma Botman
Selma Botman

PORTLAND, Maine — University of Southern Maine physics professor and Faculty Senate executive committee member Jerry LaSala announced Wednesday night that 53 members of the school’s full-tenured faculty signed a petition calling for a no-confidence vote concerning USM President Selma Botman.

The announcement is the latest news in an effort by a group of faculty members to get Botman removed from office, citing dissatisfaction with the direction of the university and claims of a poisonous atmosphere being generated by the administration in recent years.

“This place used to sing,” said Mark Lapping, executive director of USM’s high-profile Muskie School of Public Service. “This university was going places; this university really hung together. This isn’t to say we didn’t have issues or substantive concerns over the years, but I’ve never seen morale this low.”

Lapping served as USM’s provost from 1994 to 2000 and 2007 to 2009.

USM spokesman Robert Caswell on Thursday said Botman remains hopeful she can reconcile with the petitioning faculty members and has been meeting with professors this week to seek ways to answer their concerns.

LaSala wrote in an email distributed to members of the media that the number of petition signatures represents a majority of the top-level professors and easily more than the 10 percent of the roughly 340 overall faculty necessary to trigger a facultywide referendum.

He said the petition was delivered to Faculty Senate President Jeannine Uzzi on Wednesday afternoon and that body likely will decide at its 2 p.m. Friday meeting at USM’s Lewiston-Auburn campus the time and method for conducting the vote.

If a majority of the faculty, including those who are not full-tenured, give Botman a vote of no confidence, it’s a nonbinding but powerful message to new Chancellor James Page and the University of Maine System board of trustees. The chancellor and trustees ultimately would decide Botman’s fate.

“Signatories include former provosts, former deans, former presidents of the USM chapter of the Associated Faculties of the Universities of Maine [the faculty union], and former chairs of the Faculty Senate,” wrote LaSala. “The signatories feel that USM is in a crisis mode; morale is low, anxiety is high, and confidence in the current administration to lead and promote USM with integrity and competence is fragile and weak among all segments of the university community.”

A recent report that USM agreed to $242,000 in discretionary pay raises last year while facing budget cuts and contract negotiations with a faculty union that hadn’t seen cost-of-living increases since 2009 ruffled feathers. But faculty members who circulated the no-confidence petition said their dissatisfaction with Botman predates the pay-raise controversy.

“A recent AFUM survey, conducted a week before the pay raises became a public news item, and which prompted this resolution, found 77 percent of the faculty responding to it disagreed with ‘the way the university is managed,’” wrote LaSala.

Lapping reiterated Thursday that many faculty members are angry Botman’s signature reorganization plan for the school, which called for departments with fewer than 12 full-time faculty to consolidate, has left instructors overworked and has not freed up money for additional classroom spending as promised. He said the School of Social Work, for instance, has seen its faculty cut by a third in recent years and each professor there now has 60 student advisees.

“Where there are clinical placements involved and dealing with something as sensitive as social work, that’s absolutely unconscionable,” he said. “It’s the same sort of thing in teacher education and nursing. Folks are really strained. It’s not just a budget problem, it’s an allocation problem. It’s a distribution problem.”

Lapping added that only full-tenured faculty were asked to sign the petition because of fear of retribution by the administration among faculty members who are in line for sabbaticals or promotions.

“A number of people feel there has been some vindictiveness in the past,” Lapping said. “There’s a mean-spirited nature that’s set in here. People are afraid. And that shouldn’t happen here.”

USM spokesman Caswell said Thursday that Botman is attempting to “open up a dialogue with faculty” in the days leading into Friday’s Faculty Senate meeting in part to try to find common ground.

“She continues to understand that faculty members are concerned and upset,” Caswell said. “She remains confident that together they can advance the university. She’s continuing to work on face-to-face communication with faculty.”

The university also announced on Thursday plans to lower boarding costs and freeze tuition rates for out-of-state undergraduates and all graduate students in an effort to stem enrollment declines that some faculty members argued Botman had not done enough about in recent years.

But Lapping said the faculty who signed the petition believe relations with the university president have gone past the point of no return.

“It’s our hope the board of trustees and chancellor’s office examine the results and come to some decisions,” Lapping said. “I think there was a sense that this could be put back together two years ago, but whatever the president is doing now is too little, too late. I think we need to rally around the university and make a change.”

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