Entitled Professors Try a Coup in Maine

Maine’s higher education structure is a little unusual. The flagship university, in Orono, is too remote from the state’s economic and cultural core on the Kittery-to-Rockland coastline. The state’s second-largest public university, the University of Southern Maine, has campuses in Portland and nearby Gorham, but long had a reputation as a more second-tier institution.

In recent years, however, the university has experienced a dramatic improvement. A confirmation of the renaissance came in 2008, when the school recruited as its new president Selma Botman, who came to USM after having done a great job as CUNY’s executive vice chancellor (where I first encountered her). Over the last four years, she successfully coped with considerable challenges–the recession, which has affected funding for all public universities, and a political revolution in Maine. In 2010, an odd gubernatorial contest in which the Democratic nominee and a former Democrat who ran as an independent split the center-left vote allowed a very conservative Republican, Paul LePage, to prevail with only 38 percent. Since taking office, LePage hasn’t exactly earned a reputation as a friend of education.

Currently, USM is emerging on the other side–Maine’s economy is slowly improving, and LePage seems likely to lose his working majority in the legislature this November. The university’s current good position is in many ways attributable to leadership from Botman, who has navigated this extraordinarily difficult political and economic situation without having to impose large cuts. But if you think that the school’s faculty members are grateful, guess again.

Instead, faculty leaders are pushing a highly controversial no-confidence motion in the president. It’s clear they have scant support from the student body: the president of the student government criticized the attempted “coup d’état,” which left him “ashamed” by his professors’ behavior. The ostensible excuse for the resolution came in Botman’s decision to give raises to a handful of administrators, even as full-time faculty (because of the state’s economic and political climate) haven’t received raises for three years.

It seemed unlikely that anger over a handful of administrators’ raises triggered the movement for no-confidence; if that were the case, virtually every university president in the country would face such a motion. In yesterday’s Portland Press-Herald, columnist Bill Nemitz revealed the real reason behind the attempted coup–a combination of petulance and an extreme sense of faculty entitlement among some of USM’s most senior professors.

Demographically, the 53 coup plotters almost perfectly fit the profile of entitlement: Nemitz reported that “on average, they’re 63 years old, have been with USM for 24.5 years and pull down an annual salary of $94,571.” (Maine’s median income is half that much–just under $47,000.) But Nemitz built his case primarily through the words of the plotters themselves. It turns out that the professors accidentally included on an e-mail chain discussing the coup a member of the university’s board of visitors, Harold Pachios, who then passed the e-mails onto the Press-Herald.

After receiving an e-mail containing the no-confidence resolution, Pachios asked one of the plotters what basis they had for such an extraordinary move, given the general conception that Botman had done a good job. The plotters refused to supply any evidence for their opinions–and instead, bizarrely, demanded that Pachios provide “real evidence” as to why their no-confidence resolution should be rejected. Under this approach, presidents around the country would be subject, willy-nilly, to no-confidence resolutions, and deemed guilty until proven innocent while the sponsors of the resolutions didn’t have to produce evidence at all.

Over the weekend, the hapless professors then accidentally left Pachios on the e-mail chain as they struggled to articulate a rationale for ousting Botman. The sponsor of the no-confidence resolution, Jerry Lasala, conceded that a group of “fast facts” compiled by one of the coup plotters actually illustrated the difficult financial situation of the entire university system, and therefore “would not be helpful to the points we’re trying to make. Indeed, they might be interpreted”–correctly, it should be pointed out–“as evidence that the issues [related to faculty pay and financial support] are not Selma’s responsibility.”

As the chain continued on, women’s and gender studies professor Susan Feiner, co-author of the 2004 book, Liberating Economics: Feminist Perspectives on Families, Work and Globalization, (she describes herself as “one of the founding scholars in the field of feminist economics”) unintentionally revealed what appears to be the coup’s motivation: the plotters’ belief that “faculty really are the center of the academic universe.”

Despite the embarrassment of their intentions laid bare, the coup plotters appear intent on moving forward with their no-confidence resolution. They should be ashamed.

KC Johnson

KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

4 thoughts on “Entitled Professors Try a Coup in Maine

  1. USM offers a microcosm for similar debates in higher education around the world. I am saddened that this forum is almost a paraphrasing of Nemitz’ article, an op-ed by the former “student body president,” and asserts a few facts that are inaccurate. Let me clarify the facts…
    1. USM has THREE main campuses not 2: Portland, Gorham AND Lewiston-Auburn.
    2. The position of student body president is elected by undergraduates of only 2 campuses thereby excluding Lewiston-Auburn students and graduate students. So asserting that students do not support this divisive issue because one elected student asserts that HE does not support it is far from an accurate picture. If a school has 10,000 students and a “student body president” is elected by probably 200 students it is even less likely that this student leader can remotely be representative of student’s opinions especially when so many students have asserted that they disagree with him.
    3. The raises occurred at the beginning of this fiscal year, but they were not ANNOUNCED until recently. Also, several newspaper articles assert that this is “the reason” for the no confidence vote against Botman. It is the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. The raises similarly upset the public and the Chancellor of the University of Maine System responded by halting discretionary raises across all 7 University of Maine schools including USM.
    4. I question whether comparing the median income of Mainers has any relevance. The University of Maine System Board of Trustees and System Office identified “peer universities” for all system schools and does not compare the data against the Maine median. Do Universities compare salaries within their field or in their state? Also, the median salary for full time professors at a public university is $118,054 (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/11/education/11faculty.html where AAUP data is cited)
    5. While many new USM policies are cost saving measures, the reorganization of the University schools and majors has challenged the community. If you choose to quote LaSala’s commentary on system wide issue versus campus issue then it is important to note that the issues still exist and while based upon system-wide policies President Botman is responsible for the implementation of these at USM.
    6. Yes, Feiner asserted that faculty are the “center of the universe.” I have either been taught by or served on a committee with each Professor quoted in Nemitz’ article. As professors they are outstanding and committed to the co-curricular growth of their students, increasing student research opportunities and academic success. You have drawn the conclusion that this is the motivation for the no confidence vote. As there is a “Bill of Particulars” I believe the “complaints” are far more extensive.
    7 .
    What is a “good position” for the Public University? Define this before stating that President Botman has or has not succeeded in this. There is a problem if 77% of faculty disagree with how the university is managed, but this is also an international trend. The local reasons may be a USM issue or a University of Maine System issue and the distinction is important, but the problem still exists on campus and impact everyone.

  2. Hi Bill,
    Since you seem to know what’s going on, maybe you could share with us the faculty’s bill of particulars against Botman.

  3. Pachios was asked to provide real evidence for two claims he had made in his e-mail. It would be nice if you had your facts straight.

  4. Somebody with more musical acumen than I should write a song entitled, “Rats on a Sinking Ship” as the theme song of socialism and communism.
    There would be verses for the communists swarming the green movement after the shipwreck of the Communist Bloc in 1989, the pitiable plague of pride, the inevitability of ineptness and ignorance (especially with email, as here and with the Climate Research Unit), the desire of our university betters to control us poor unwashed masses. The hilarity could go on and on. What with the alcohol and drugs that inevitably follow the despair arising from the imposition of do-gooder socialism and communism, the party might not end for a long time!
    With the Maine crew described here, the verses would be kind of Treasure-Island-meets Three-Stooges-with-lobsters. There would be a Marxist parrot, of course, quoting Chairman Mao, and Long John Silver saying, ‘O to be young again and complain about having only ten toes!” The faculty would give the black spot to Dr. Selma, and she would fight them all on the quarterdeck with flashing cutlass and pistol. They would be soundly defeated and be cast adrift whining in a dingy dinghy with survival rations and a photo of Barack Obama as their compass.
    Maybe an enterprising student at this university would make an indie film about it.

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