April 26, 2018
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Accountability and latitude at UMaine

By Sun Journal

On Monday, the UMaine Board of Trustees made a couple of smart decisions.

Trustees approved hiring former UMF President Theo Kalikow to assume the president’s post at the University of Southern Maine. At Kalikow’s retirement party in Farmington last month, it was clear that her leadership and engagement in that community were greatly valued by students, faculty and residents, which is exactly what USM needs right now.

Trustees also made significant and welcome changes in university policy, shifting authority for appointments, promotions and pay raises to the chancellor and away from university presidents.

While these are additional duties for the very involved, visible and “new” Chancellor James Page, the changes were necessary following recent media reports on the UMaine trend to hire top-level administrators without engaging in job searches (including hiring some administrators who did not have the required education or experience to serve in their new roles) and to offer millions of dollars in discretionary pay raises to system employees.
All while cutting academic programs and raising tuition rates.

We applaud Page and trustees for quickly putting a stop to the games of personal and political connections and decisively halting discretionary pay raises.

The shift heralds a fresh accountability within the UMaine System, and an acknowledgment that taxpayer support matters.

However, in other action, we wonder whether trustees were overly gracious to former USM President Selma Botman in approving a spanking new $203,000 job for her to ease into.

Botman was responsible for some of those controversial pay raises, and was the subject of an uneasy and telling effort by more than half the USM faculty to oust her with a vote of no confidence in May, a vote prompted by faculty dissatisfaction with her management style and her plans for reorganization.

That episode was so uncomfortable that, weeks later, Botman went to Page to say the only way the university could move forward was for her to step down. She recognized she could not continue in her role as president.

But, continue on as a president she does.

Trustees approved a plan to reassign Botman to a just-created job as “special assistant to the president on global education.” It’s a lesser job in which she will spend much of the next year traveling overseas, and she has been permitted to keep her “president” title and her exceptional $203,000 president-level salary.

We know the world of academia is cushioned, but in any other world such a soft landing for Botman would be unheard of.

We’re not suggesting Botman isn’t capable of bringing greater global perspective to the campuses of UMaine, or that such a role is not important in an emerging global economy, but this is a year’s gift of university-supported (and taxpayer-funded) overseas travel for the purpose of recruiting students.

At other universities that host such a staff position, including The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and Wilkes University in Pennsylvania, reigning officials in charge of global education are hands-on campus-assigned administrators who draft curricula, develop strategic programs and oversee international agreements, while also administering immigrant students and faculty in, for example, international study, internships and service learning projects. And, they spend time teaching and researching.

These are big jobs that typically don’t involve a whole lot of overseas travel.

And, yet, travel will be such a significant part of Botman’s new role that the reason trustees permitted her to keep her title of “president” was to help her status when she travels. But, then, status is important. Especially when trying to recruit students to Maine. Right?

We hope that, in a year’s time, there is a stern evaluation of whether Botman’s salary and travel expenses resulted in any significant bump in foreign enrollment, and whether such a bump is worth the cost.

This reassignment, and significant added public expenditure, must be justified.

Sun Journal, Lewiston (July 11)

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