‘It’s a real dereliction of duty’: UMaine president’s departure in midst of 5-year plan stirs anger, frustration among faculty, alumni

Posted May 23, 2014, at 4:33 p.m.
University of Maine President Paul Ferguson speaks at Ball State University on Thursday when he was named the school's new president.
Courtesy of Ball State University
University of Maine President Paul Ferguson speaks at Ball State University on Thursday when he was named the school's new president.
University of Maine President Paul Ferguson, with his wife Grace, is introduced as the new president of Ball State University during a ceremony Thursday.
Courtesy of Ball State University
University of Maine President Paul Ferguson, with his wife Grace, is introduced as the new president of Ball State University during a ceremony Thursday.

ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine will be left with a leadership void at a difficult time when President Paul Ferguson leaves his post for a position at Ball State University in Indiana this summer.

Just weeks ago, the campus’ top financial officer announced her departure and the lead academic official has been on the job for less than a year. Earlier this week, university system trustees approved a budget that cuts campus funding.

“I think it’s a real dereliction of duty to abandon a direction you design in order to make a career move before you’ve succeeded in almost anything,” said English professor Tony Brinkley.

A five-year strategic plan spearheaded by Ferguson and voted into action by the University of Maine System’s board of trustees in July 2012 is currently about halfway through implementation. Faculty and alumni are disappointed that the president will not see the plan through.

“I’m disappointed in terms of his leaving and disappointed that certain initiatives have been started and changes have been made,” said former Governor John Baldacci, referring to the five-year plan, which is known as the Blue Sky Plan. “He’s not going to be here to implement them.”

Ferguson did not respond to requests for comment, but at a press conference held Thursday at Ball State he said the Blue Sky Plan is “in a very strong implementation phase.” Ferguson will be paid $450,000 next year in his new position, according to the Star Press. His annual salary as president of UMaine was $249,999.96, according to a salary report posted on the UMS site last month.

In April, UMaine’s vice president for administration and finance, Janet Waldron, accepted a position as vice chancellor at the University of North Texas System. Waldron’s annual salary was listed in UMS records as $169,976, while the Texas Tribune reported in 2012 that the vice chancellor for finance at the University of North Texas System made $277,560 annually.

In addition to losing Waldron and Ferguson to higher-paying positions, the system’s board of trustees raised the salary of the vice chancellor for administration and finance, Rebecca Wyke, by $40,000 this year in order to keep her from leaving, according to UMS Chancellor James Page.

Faculty expressed frustration late this week over the use of the university as a stepping stone for academics who are able to move on to higher-paying positions in other states.

Page said Friday that it’s difficult for Maine to compete with universities in other states that are able to pay higher salaries.

“I think Paul has been a great president and in this day and age, with all the challenges in higher education, when you do as good a job as Paul has done, you’re going to attract attention,” he said.

“Certainly we want to retain people and competition is tough for very capable people and it’s something we have to be aware of,” said trustee Sam Collins on Friday. He also said that there had not been any discussions of major systemic changes recently.

The university is in the midst of a difficult time financially. On Monday, the system ’s trustees approved a budget that cuts about $22.7 million, leaving a $529 million budget.

The cuts include $9.7 million from UMaine or 3.8 percent of the university’s total budget. To reduce the impact this year, the university will pull over $5 million from its own reserve funds and $900,000 from the system’s reserve funds.

The reserve funds are a one-time source of money and do not resolve the systemic budget shortfall at both the university and the system as a whole, administrators say.

Using those funds to balance the budget is a practice that worries Baldacci.

“It almost has the impact of not being done for the long term,” he said.

Jack Cashman, a local businessman and commissioner of the department of economic and community development under Baldacci, said using reserve funding explains the departure of both Ferguson and Waldron.

“They have left before the decisions have to be made because of the fact that they used savings to plug the hole,” Cashman said.

“It’s a hole that’s going to reappear.”

Page has said repeatedly that the shortfall is a result of flat funding from the state, a frozen in-state tuition rate and Maine’s declining student population, paired with increasing costs.

UMaine Provost Jeff Hecker, who was appointed to the post in September, said he was surprised by Ferguson’s departure, though it is a reflection of the competitive nature of university leadership.

“It does feel a bit abrupt, but I think that is contemporary practice in higher education,” he said. “Universities are competing for the very best leaders and what’s evolved is confidential searches.”

Ferguson’s three-year post at UMaine was shorter than what is typical, though the average time a president spends in his or her position is declining, according to a 2012 report by the American Council on Education.

The average length of service of a university president dropped from eight to seven years between 2006 and 2011, a summary of the report said.

 

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