The real university system debacle: trustees not using oversight power

University of Southern Maine President Selma Botman fields questions from reporters Thursday afternoon, July 5, 2012, after announcing she would be leaving the USM post and taking a job in the University of Maine System chancellor's office.
University of Southern Maine President Selma Botman fields questions from reporters Thursday afternoon, July 5, 2012, after announcing she would be leaving the USM post and taking a job in the University of Maine System chancellor's office. Buy Photo
Posted July 11, 2012, at 12:50 p.m.

The University of Southern Maine has both an image problem and a supervision problem that will take time and specific measures to fix. More than anything, the University of Maine System board of trustees needs to strengthen its oversight of the hiring process of university leaders and ensure that they can be held accountable for their performance. Creating a new position for a president who was the focus of a no-confidence vote, and allowing her to maintain her $203,000 yearly salary, reads like a misuse of public funding.

In truth, the trustees abided by the terms of her contract when they voted Monday to move former USM President Selma Botman to a new position recruiting international students. Their options were to either terminate her contract or reassign her to a different position, but either way they were bound to pay her for the remaining year of her term. In that way, then, their decision was a practical one: Keep paying Botman to work. There were no grounds to fire her for just cause, which would have required criminal activity or examples of moral turpitude.

But the question is not whether trustees voted appropriately on Monday. It’s whether Botman’s contract was designed to give them the flexibility to act in the best interests of the state. New USM president Theo Kalikow, who was called in to replace Botman, hit the point exactly on Tuesday. Kalikow recently retired from being the president of the University of Maine at Farmington and said when she first began work there “we really started looking at, ‘How can accountability be implemented in higher education so that faculty will embrace it and students will benefit from it?’”

We’d add: How can administration be held accountable as well? Against what standards can they be measured? And what are the repercussions for administrators who don’t meet those standards?

Botman requested the move, to be special assistant to the chancellor on global education, in late June, about two months after faculty held a referendum on their confidence in her. Though the vote in favor of no-confidence was an overwhelming 194-88, it did not meet requirements to be the “will of the faculty.”

The contentious vote in May was driven by some senior faculty who circulated a petition calling for it. They accused Botman of being vindictive toward faculty who questioned her initiatives and said her plan to consolidate departments with fewer than 12 full-time faculty left people overworked and without additional, promised classroom spending money. Realistically, USM and the entire system has faced budget cuts, fiscal uncertainty and declining student enrollment.

It’s now important for the university to repair the public’s trust. Chancellor James Page and trustees can do the following:

• Approve employment contracts that allow appropriate responses to campus conditions.

• Continue to be open to questions from the university employees, the public and the media.

• Continue to explain how the system’s current review of administrative responsibilities will create efficiencies that save money. Page estimates that reorganization, which may include a workforce reduction, will save $8 million during the first annualized year, $16 million in the second and $24 million in the third.

University system leaders claim the planned efficiencies will cover the costs of Botman’s new job. And they say her new duties fall in line with the university system’s goals to draw more international students to help fill an anticipated loss of graduating Maine high school seniors. International students currently make up just 2 percent of the system’s year-round population — at 664 of about 40,000 students.

But that’s beside the point. The public is paying for a system — not to mention Botman’s last year of work — that has failed them. Right now trust has faltered. Botman must be honest with the public. The trustees must be honest with themselves and focus on designing an oversight system that allows them to reward or penalize a president based on a fundamental role of universities in the first place: grading performance. If you don’t meet requirements, you shouldn’t be able to slide through the final year.

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