The trustees of Maine’s public university system have unanimously chosen former Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy to be the system’s next chancellor. Picking the much disliked, but change-oriented Democratic governor is an interesting choice that is not without reason for concern.
Malloy’s appointment reinforces that the trustees will continue their work to make the University of Maine System more relevant and responsive to the state’s educational and economic needs. This work is overdue but is proceeding slowly, even as the state urgently needs a better-trained workforce.
We understand why the university system, like all academic institutions, proceeds with caution. But, that slow pace means that cross-campus cooperation and joint programs manage to merit press releases, even when it is still difficult to transfer credits between campuses. Such cooperation should be the norm, not newsworthy.
The surprising choice of Malloy — and his acceptance of the job — can cement the university system’s transition from an uncoordinated and underappreciated asset to a centerpiece of Maine’s higher education and economic development work.
For decades, the chancellor’s office was a political punching bag, with frequent attempts to eliminate it all together. The chancellor’s job did not attract top notch candidates and it was too often filled with academics who needed a place to end their careers.
As a result, the seven-campus system suffered from inertia and a lack of strong political support in Augusta.
In recent years, with a stronger, more focused board of trustees, the system has been transformed into a more respected and accountable entity. Under the leadership of Chancellor Jim Page, difficult decisions — some of which had been avoided for years — were made.
Page faced an impending $90 million budget deficit when he took the chancellorship in 2012. The university system cut more than 900 positions from its budget between 2007 and 2015, saving $82 million in salary and benefit costs each year. In 2016, the system closed its central administrative office in downtown Bangor and transferred system office staff to different campuses. And in 2017, the University of Maine at Machias, the system’s smallest university, became a satellite campus of the flagship University of Maine in Orono. The two campuses now share a president and other administration. Campus missions and responsibilities were clarified.
This is a significant turning point for the university system as it seeks to build on these changes.
“The substantial ground work the system has achieved under Chancellor Page led to interest from outstanding candidates from within academia and outside of traditional academic settings,” Trustee Sam Collins, the chair of the search committee told the BDN. “Candidates were drawn to the opportunity to help lead the next step in a pioneering reinvention of how higher education is being delivered by a public university system.”
Malloy, who first came to Maine to attend a camp for teens with learning disabilities, brings strong, if controversial, credentials to the job. In many ways, he did in Connecticut what Page did for the university system on a much larger scale. Faced with a massive budget deficit when he was first elected in 2010, Malloy cut state spending, in part by reducing the state’s workforce and by cajoling the state’s unions into pension and wage cutbacks.
He was responsible for creating the Connecticut Board of Regents, which merged the state’s 12 community colleges and four state universities and an online degree program under a single umbrella. Much like the early decades of the University of Maine System, the board has yet to live up to its promises.
Beyond budgets and education, Malloy ended the state’s death penalty while also reducing crime, cut Connecticut’s uninsured rate in half, built a new commuter rail line and personally welcomed refugees to the state. He implemented the country’s first statewide paid sick-leave law, raised the minimum wage and significantly reduced homelessness.
He was not popular. In April 2018, he had the worst approval rating of any governor in the US, well below that of Maine’s former Gov. Paul LePage, who chronically ranked as one of the country’s least popular governors.
More important — and an area for close scrutiny from the board of trustees moving forward — Malloy is considered prickly and was often at odds with Connecticut lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans. Selling and implementing big changes can be difficult, but trustees must ensure that Malloy’s tendency to take charge and give little credence to criticism doesn’t impede their important work of making the University of Maine System a vital and responsive partner in the state’s pursuit of growth and economic vitality.