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.