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Promising transparency at USM is a good first step for troubled campus’ interim president

A crowd protests proposed deep cuts at the University of Southern Maine on March 24, 2014.
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
A crowd protests proposed deep cuts at the University of Southern Maine on March 24, 2014. Buy Photo
Posted July 23, 2014, at 11:24 a.m.

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David Flanagan was named interim president of the University of Southern Maine on Wednesday.
Courtesy of the University of Maine System
David Flanagan was named interim president of the University of Southern Maine on Wednesday.

David Flanagan is stepping into what is perhaps the most thankless job in higher education in Maine.

On Monday, he’ll take over as interim president of the University of Southern Maine, taking the helm that follows a year in which a mandate to cut the 9,000-student university’s budget by $14 million spiraled out of control into a long-term confrontation that gave the institution’s public image a black eye. The episode highlighted a blatant and deep-seated administrative wariness among some faculty members and students.

Flanagan has a mandate from University of Maine System Chancellor James Page and the system’s trustees to alleviate internal tension among USM’s various constituencies, rehabilitate the university’s public image, help along the work of a task force charged with refining USM’s strategic focus as a “metropolitan university” and generally get the place in order so it has a chance of attracting a top-flight permanent president.

Since USM isn’t past its budget-balancing troubles, Flanagan’s charge also includes the easily all-consuming task of balancing the university’s budget for the next fiscal year, which will involve closing a projected $12.5 million gap.

The plan is that Flanagan will have a year to complete those duties; a permanent president is expected to take charge next summer.

A lawyer by trade — not an academic — Flanagan often is called on to sort out structural dilemmas in public institutions. In 2005 and 2006, he served as general counsel to the Senate committee that led an investigation into the federal government’s handling of the response to Hurricane Katrina. This past winter, the former Central Maine Power Co. president led a task force devising a way to shore up the finances of Maine’s county jails.

In 2009, Flanagan took on similar work for the University of Maine System, leading the system’s New Challenges, New Directions initiative — a response to a projected $43 million structural budget gap between 2009 and 2013. The resulting report pushed each university to determine an ideal size and specific mission and budget accordingly. It ordered a comprehensive review of all academic programs with an eye toward reducing unnecessary duplication of courses and programs across the system.

“It took until Jim Page to get a chancellor to listen to it,” Flanagan says.

So, how will Flanagan — also a former University of Maine System trustee — translate his experience into problem-solving at USM?

He says he’ll focus on putting together a capable team — which won’t include USM Provost Michael Stevenson — and emphasize transparency in decision-making.

The emphasis on transparency is a critical step in cultivating some semblance of trust among faculty, students and the administration. USM’s former president, Theodora Kalikow, started down the road of phasing out three academic programs: geosciences, American and New England studies, and arts and humanities at USM’s Lewiston-Auburn campus. But many have questioned the criteria administrators used to select those programs for elimination. An honest, data-driven conversation would be a good place to start.

Balancing the budget inevitably will include tough choices. For that purpose, it could work to Flanagan’s advantage that he will be around only one year before he returns to retirement.

“I’m doing this truly as a public service,” Flanagan says. “I’ve got nothing to gain from it, and grief will be had.”

 

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