Again, a major university leader is leaving. Again, she will put aside a difficult job to serve out the rest of her contract in a less contentious position, while still earning her full salary. And again, many Maine residents are left with the feeling they have the worse end of the bargain.
On Tuesday, the University of Maine System announced that University of Southern Maine President Theo Kalikow will vacate the office effective July 18. She has been in the position for two years and, after a brief sabbatical, will finish out the remaining year of her existing contract as acting vice chancellor for the university system.
In that role, she will be responsible for advancing “community engagement initiatives” to build links between the university system and local communities and businesses. Her work will include the creation of a strategic plan, and she’ll retain her $203,000 salary.
There is no doubt the system can benefit from greater public understanding about how the universities contribute to Maine, whether through academic research, students volunteering, events or direct business assistance. But it’s difficult to make the case when the system continues to be overshadowed by public relations messes involving apparent financial imprudence.
Even if Kalikow is making the right decision to leave, to bring “a new energy and a new perspective to the university,” as she put it, and even if the university system is bound to its contract with her, the harm to public perception is done. Over and over, Maine residents have seen administrators slide through their remaining months, at taxpayers’ expense.
Kalikow’s predecessor, former USM President Selma Botman, also left her post with a year to go on her contract. She finished out her time crafting a 39-page five-year plan for recruiting international students, while retaining a yearly salary and benefits of $275,908.
The full cost to the system, including for an assistant, a car and a consultant, totaled $363,028. Before she even finished her report, the system signed a contract with a company to recruit international students to the University of Maine at Orono and USM.
When Richard Pattenaude announced he would step down from being system chancellor in 2012, he was allowed a sabbatical during which he could teach one class and keep his $220,000-per-year chancellorship salary.
Joseph W. Westphal, who was system chancellor from 2002 to 2006, took a position as a University of Maine professor after his resignation and remained the highest-paid state employee in 2007 with a salary of $208,000 per year.
When Terry MacTaggart resigned the system chancellorship in 2001, the board of trustees created a new position for him as a research professor; his $116,000 salary was three-quarters of what he earned as chancellor.
There are others who benefited from a smooth, well-financed exit, too.
The system has real problems to tackle; next year, USM alone faces a $12.5 million budget hole. It will require not just hard work to set priorities and goals for the future, but trust and public support. When the system allows leaders to continue receiving their plush salaries even though they are no longer in their positions of leadership, it makes the job at hand only harder.