AUGUSTA, Maine — Democrats on the Legislature’s Education Committee voted unanimously to reject Gov. Paul LePage’s nomination of Susan Dench to the University of Maine System board of trustees after a contentious hearing on Friday.
The 8-5 party-line vote goes to the full Senate on Tuesday.
Dench, of Falmouth, is a marketing professional and former conservative blogger for the Bangor Daily News. She was heavily criticized during Friday’s hearing for her conservative views on gender roles.
In addition to criticism of Dench’s ideology, an English professor from the University of Southern Maine presented evidence she said proved Dench plagiarized a column she wrote for the BDN in November 2013.
Jane Kuenz, who chairs USM’s English department, argued that the column “copied the train of thought” of a 2003 piece published in the Free Republic, which drew heavily from a 17th century essay by William Bradford, who was the governor of Plymouth Colony at the time. The gist of Dench’s article was that the Pilgrims were communists.
“I don’t accuse people lightly about plagiarism and in this case it’s actually not difficult to spot or decide,” said Kuenz. “I’ve taught English a long time and I’ve seen this before. … Someone who doesn’t understand the core values of the university has no business on the board of trustees.”
Matthew Stone, the BDN’s opinion page editor, said he had not heard the plagiarism allegations before Friday and that he has inspected the column, which cited Bradford.
“Susan Dench was not the first to make the argument that the Pilgrims were communists, but her BDN column on the subject was properly sourced, and the writing was her own,” said Stone.
Dench’s final column for the BDN was in July.
Several UMaine instructors took issue with the content of many of Dench’s writings.
“Susan Dench routinely claims in her blogs that universities and colleges around the country have been attacking conservatives for years,” said Lucinda Cole, USM’s director of women and gender studies and associate English professor. “Ironically, her own treatment of other viewpoints boils down to little more than name-calling.”
Danna Hayes, director of public policy for the Maine Women’s Lobby, also objected to some of Dench’s writings, including a January 2014 blog post for the BDN, in which Dench wrote, in part, “[women] want a confident, respectful man who isn’t going to turn into your girlfriend, exercises authority (not control), is strong, is a provider, who protects us, makes decisions, [and] is assertive (not aggressive).”
Hayes said attitudes like that perpetuate faulty and damaging male dominance notions.
“She also makes references to the ‘feminine’ values of ‘socialization and cooperation,’ claiming that expecting boys to act as the weaker sex is untrue to their nature,” said Hayes. “We propose that caring and cooperation are not feminine values as much as they are human values.”
Dench also was criticized for her opinion that all public school students ought to be taught in English.
“If you want to get ahead in this country, you have to speak English,” she told the committee in response. “I do think that children should be taught in English because that’s the language of success. … I’m not going to be bullied into not sharing my personal views. I have detractors but I also have a lot of people who agree with the way I think.”
Dench, whose resume includes decades of marketing and program manager experience with numerous large companies, argued that academia is the most important place for divergent opinions to be respected and that her personal views are irrelevant. She said her skills in marketing and management would be valuable to the UMaine system, which is struggling to attract more students and retain them once they’ve enrolled.
“I’ve worked on collaborative teams for my whole life … and the focus has always been how do we get together to make things work,” she said. “That’s what the board of trustees is. It’s a collaborative team and it really doesn’t matter what those members’ views are.”
Dench told the BDN that the hearing “felt like a barbecue and I was the chicken.”
“It felt like they put partisanship over the interests of our kids and I think that’s really unfortunate,” she said.
Rep. Victoria Kornfield, D-Bangor, said partisanship had nothing to do with her vote Friday against Dench’s nomination. In addition to Dench’s positions on gender roles, Kornfield said she was concerned about the plagiarism allegations.
“I take that very seriously,” she said. “It’s a matter of integrity.”
Republicans said after the hearing that the vote was politically motivated against Dench, whose husband, Lewiston-based attorney Bryan Dench, is the LePage re-election campaign’s treasurer.
LePage campaign spokesman Alex Willette said Friday that there is no connection between Bryan Dench and LePage’s nomination of his wife to the university system’s board of trustees, and that the governor’s vetting of Susan Dench started before her husband joined the campaign during the summer.
“It’s too bad,” said Rep. Michael McClellan, R-Raymond, after the vote. “If this weren’t an election year this never would have happened.”
Dench’s nomination was one of three LePage nominations to the University System board of trustees that were considered by the Education Committee Friday. The committee unanimously endorsed Samuel Collins of Caribou, the trustees’ current chairman, and newcomer James O. Donnelly of Brewer.
Dench’s was the only one of 22 LePage nominations rejected by the Education Committee on Friday. According to research by the Maine State Law and Legislative Reference Library, Friday’s vote marked the first time the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee has rejected a gubernatorial nomination to the University of Maine board of trustees dating to at least the 108th Legislature in 1977.
Those nominations, along with a long list of others, go to the Senate on Tuesday. A two-thirds vote is required to overturn the committee’s recommendation against Dench.