UMaine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy at a forum at the University of Maine at Machias. Credit: Eesha Pendharkar | BDN

Dannel Malloy has spent much of his time in his new role leading the University of Maine System pursuing a change the system has considered off and on for more than 30 years.

But in less than a semester on the job, Malloy has already moved the change closer to reality than any of his predecessors. Now, as he and top administrators work out the details of how the University of Maine System will operate under a single accreditation, Malloy is traveling to each of the state’s seven universities to answer questions about the change and introduce himself.

While the idea of a single accreditation for the state’s seven public universities isn’t proving especially popular with professors, Malloy, who finished his second term as governor of Connecticut in January, has earned plaudits for the speed with which he’s acted as well as his transparent approach.

“Chancellor Malloy is very action-oriented, and very mindful to bring people along to the extent possible, but not at the expense of not moving forward,” said Jim Erwin, chair of the University of Maine System Board of Trustees.

And while Jim McClymer, a University of Maine physics professor and the head of the faculty union, said the university system is moving too fast on the single accreditation, he praised Malloy for acting transparently.

The chancellor has published five years of communications with the university system’s regional accrediting body, the New England Commission of Higher Education, on a website. He also sends out periodic email updates to faculty members. After forums at each campus, Malloy’s staff hands out surveys asking for feedback on the accreditation initiative.

“The transparency seems to be legitimate,” McClymer said. “I like the way he’s going out to campuses. To do this right, you need back-and-forth.”

Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

‘On notice’

Soon after Malloy, 64, took office on July 1, the university system’s board of trustees tasked him with figuring out a solution to the system’s accreditation challenge.

A university’s accreditation is essentially the stamp of approval that shows it meets a benchmark of quality. It’s meant to signify that the university’s academic programs meet basic standards, that its facilities are sufficient for a college education and that the university has a particular organizational structure.

But in Maine, the universities in Fort Kent and Presque Isle have been collaborating so much in recent years — sharing administrators and running academic programs on each other’s campuses — that the regional accrediting body has questioned whether they’re still separate universities that are eligible for their own accreditation.

Malloy has said the universities are “on notice” for excessive collaboration.

University system trustees don’t want the collaboration to stop — they want more of it — so they’ve given Malloy the green light to pursue an accreditation that applies to the University of Maine System as a whole.

Malloy has touted the single accreditation for how it would allow campuses to work together more while maintaining the administrative structure, physical location and unique characteristics of each of the seven universities.

To emphasize those points, Malloy has planned at least three visits to each university, where he’s doing at least as much listening as talking.

Taking the discussion on the road

Credit: Eesha Pendharkar | BDN

During a recent visit to the University of Maine at Machias to discuss accreditation with students, staff members and professors, Malloy’s political background was apparent.

He acknowledged the concerns of those in the audience and tailored his answers to address the specific situation of the person asking the question.

“The fear of the unknown I know is a great fear,” he said. “That’s why we started with the document about what it is and is not. Shared governance will be protected. Labor agreements will be protected and recognized. Institutions operating under a unified accreditation will continue to exist as institutions. Your diploma will say Machias.”

Responding to a question from a campus librarian, he said he wants to ensure that students have broader access to library services as a result of the single accreditation. When a student asked him if she would be able to enroll in classes on other campuses under the unified accreditation, he highlighted the broader options she’d have. When a music professor asked a question, he spoke about the importance of a liberal arts education.

He spoke about the accreditation proposal in a statewide context. A possible recession would require the university system to get creative, he said, and a single accreditation would allow that.

Unpopular in Connecticut, new to Maine

When Malloy took over as chancellor, his reputation as the country’s least popular governor was common knowledge on the University of Maine campus in Orono. But professors don’t necessarily hold that against him.

“He was a pretty controversial governor. I didn’t know how that would translate,” said William Dee Nichols, a professor of literacy education at UMaine and vice president of the UMaine Faculty Senate. “He definitely pushed boundaries, but that might be a good thing.”

Malloy acknowledged his low approval rating in Connecticut in his first public address at UMaine.

“It was not easy. It was not always popular, but it was a job to be gotten done,” he said on May 30 when he was introduced as the university system’s next chancellor.

At campus forums, he answers questions as conversationally as possible, but isn’t afraid to disagree with faculty members’ opinions on accreditation.

Although he’s lived in New England for most of his life, Malloy is new to Maine, a fact that he said he’s constantly reminded of. He’s spending the first semester visiting all the campuses to get to know the people and the campuses.

“I think he has a lot to learn about the culture of each campus. He needs to come to a stronger understanding of where our programs are,” Erwin said. “He has absorbed the many complexities of a large institution like the UMaine System and I think he’s also grasped the most important challenges for him to be focused on.”

Even as he takes on the new role of leading the University of Maine System, his first big initiative has similarities to one of his big undertakings in Connecticut.

Soon after he took office as governor in 2011, Malloy merged Connecticut’s community college system and public universities to form one governing body called the Board of Regents to oversee the merged educational institutions. The promises this merger was supposed to deliver on — saving money, adding faculty, easier student transfers — were at least partially fulfilled.

But just like Malloy when he was governor, the merger was not well liked.

Watch: Malloy makes first public remarks after being named next chancellor for University of Maine System