AUGUSTA, Maine — John Fitzsimmons, longtime president of Maine’s community college system, has resigned.
The resignation comes after several days of pressure from Gov. Paul LePage, who criticized the community colleges president for being unavailable and too slow to enact the governor’s agenda on higher education.
Despite the public support of the system’s trustees — and the fact that LePage has no technical authority over him — Fitzsimmons said in an interview that he wasn’t willing to put the system at risk of political retribution.
He said LePage simply had too much leverage.
Some employee salaries are “paid partially by the state, which takes a financial order from the governor. We have bond money for projects that he could stall or not allow to go through,” Fitzsimmons said.
LePage has demonstrated a willingness to withhold voter approved bonds as leverage for achieving his policy initiatives, as he did two years ago in an effort to make lawmakers pay off old hospital debts. He also has stalled financial orders for Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat and regular political opponent.
But Fitzsimmons said it wasn’t just the potential financial fallout of bad blood between himself and the governor.
“Equally important, when the chief executive of the state is telling people that nothing has happened for four years, that does harm to our system. Of course, it’s a baseless claim, but he has a very big bully pulpit,” Fitzsimmons said.
He said he will stay on as president until an acting president is named, which he expects will happen by the end of the month.
Fitzsimmons, a 65-year-old resident of Falmouth, where he also coaches high school football, has served as president of the Maine Community College System for nearly 25 years. As of May 2014, about 18,000 students were enrolled at the seven campuses of the community college system. Officials with the system have trumpeted enrollment growth and tuition prices that are among the most affordable in New England.
Fitzsimmons oversaw that growth, as well as the transition of the system from one for technical colleges with a focus on trade skills to a community college system that provides general studies and liberal arts education as well as career-oriented training and certifications.
The governor revealed that he was seeking Fitzsimmons’ resignation during a budget briefing with reporters on Friday.
Since then, he has cited the failure of the community college system to establish complete credit transferability between the community colleges and the University of Maine System, or to adopt the Bridge Year program, which allows students to earn college credit before graduating high school. The community college system abandoned Bridge Year after a one-year pilot, while the University of Maine system is continuing with the program.
On Monday, LePage doubled down on his call for Fitzsimmons’ departure, saying that the Maine Community College System had become “stagnant,” and that if trustees did not take steps to ensure Fitzsimmons’ departure, they would “ feel the wrath.”
When asked by a reporter whether his displeasure with Fitzsimmons was the reason he flat-funded the community college system in his new budget proposal, LePage said simply, “He’s lucky I didn’t cut them.”
Fitzsimmons said Monday that he had never refused a meeting with the governor and would “drop everything” if he was summoned to a meeting with LePage. However, he said he had not spoken with LePage for several months, even after the governor called for his resignation.
“He was very clear,” Fitzsimmons said of the governor. “I didn’t think we were going to have a discourse and find a solution. It wasn’t going to happen.”
After Fitzsimmons announced his resignation, LePage’s tone changed. In a written statement, the governor said Fitzsimmons had “accomplished great things” during his 25-year tenure.
But, he said, “today creativity, innovation and competitiveness must propel an antiquated system into a new era.”
Despite the criticism from LePage, trustees had backed Fitzsimmons. Robert Clark, chairman of the board, said Wednesday that the board accepted Fitzsimmons’ resignation with “deep regret.”
“As hard as this is for the board to accept, this very difficult decision offers a perfect insight into Dr. Fitzsimmons, who always puts the best interest of students and the colleges first,” he said.
Clark also offered a contrasting viewpoint to the governor’s criticisms, arguing that the Maine Community College System saw great progress during the past five years.
That progress includes tens of millions of dollars of grants and private funding secured, new academic programs and the opening of two new campuses in Brunswick and Hinckley, he said. He also said 92 percent of community college graduates during the past five years have either landed jobs or continued education.
On Wednesday, Fitzsimmons said he didn’t believe the governor had all the information about Bridge Year, or about credit transfer. Complete credit transfer is a long, complicated process, he said, but the University of Maine and community college systems were readying to launch the initiative this year.
Similarly, the system is renewing its commitment to the Bridge Year program, he said. He also noted that even if it didn’t, the Maine Community College System is already the largest provider of college credits to high school students in the state.
“We have 2,700 high school students taking college courses for free,” he said. “We are the biggest provider of dual enrollment. That isn’t something we’ve ever shied away from.”
While he may not be long for the president’s office, Fitzsimmons’ mood Wednesday was upbeat. With the trustees’ blessing, he said he would stay on with the Foundation for Maine’s Community Colleges — a nonprofit established to raise money for the system — until this summer. After that, he said, he was unsure what the future held.
Follow Mario Moretto on twitter at @riocarmine.