A Delayed Coup in Maine Succeeds

In the last few months, the highest-profile
administrative skirmish has occurred at the University of Virginia. The affair
was depressing in that an important principle (the need for aggressive
oversight by trustees) appears to have been used to advance a rather weak
agenda.

I fear that the Virginia fiasco will cause other trustees
to avoid fulfilling their duties, lest they encounter the kind of faculty
uprising that occurred in Charlottesville. Events from last week in a far
lower-profile skirmish, at the University of Southern Maine, provide a reminder
why meaningful reform in higher education requires trustees willing to stand
behind well-intentioned administrators–and also a reminder of what happens when
a university prioritizes stability over all else.

A few months ago, I wrote about the attempted faculty
coup against USM president Selma Botman. The ostensible complaint of the coup
plotters was Botman’s decision to give raises to various administrators even as
faculty members (who nonetheless are very well-compensated by Maine standards,
and who face a quite different labor market than in-demand administrators)
didn’t get raises.

Whatever the legitimacy of the complaint, the plotters’
preferred tactic–a no-confidence vote against Botman–seemed wildly
disproportionate, suggesting that something else motivated the faculty rebels.
And, it turns out, they revealed their real motives, in e-mails they
accidentally forwarded to a member of USM’s board of visitors; one plotter described
the professors’ belief that “faculty really are the center of the academic
universe.”

Yet even after revelation of this humiliating motive, the
no-confidence vote went forward, receiving more than 50 percent but falling
short of the needed margin. Nonetheless, the University of Maine System
Chancellor James Page–new to the job, and therefore having played no role in
the hiring of Botman–issued a statement that he took “very seriously” the
faculty concerns (again, in a coup based on the stated belief that “faculty
really are the center of the academic universe”). Nothing Page has done in the
last two months could have been interpreted as offering meaningful support to
Botman, or expressing his outrage that senior USM faculty could have behaved in
such a petty manner.

Last Thursday, Botman stepped aside, agreeing to a
reassignment within the system. Page’s comments about the move referenced
“conversations” he had with coup plotters–who, in interviews with the Portland Press-Herald, rejoiced at
having succeeded.

It seems that the “faculty really are the center of the
academic universe” at the University of Southern Maine. And a university that
seemed to be turning the corner under Botman’s leadership can retreat to the
failed policies of the past, with the coup plotters having shown clearly who’s
in charge at USM.

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.

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