University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy has faced votes of no confidence from faculty members at three universities since last week. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

Dannel Malloy is facing the most serious challenge yet to his leadership of the University of Maine System three years after he became its chancellor.

The former governor of Connecticut has faced votes of no confidence from faculty members at three of the system’s seven universities since last week, becoming at least the third chancellor to face such votes in the University of Maine System’s 54-year history.

The votes aren’t explicit calls for Malloy’s resignation, but they show that professors at the University of Maine at Augustathe University of Southern Maine and the University of Maine at Farmington are using the primary means available to them to broadcast their disapproval.

The votes come on the heels of a search for UMA’s new president during which Malloy and a system trustee never disclosed to the full search committee that the man ultimately hired for the job had himself faced a faculty vote of no confidence at his current institution in New York.

The votes have also objected to recent faculty layoffs at UMF that have hit humanities positions hard and provoked student protests.

But those are only the latest objections to the chancellor’s leadership, as the no-confidence resolutions also protest centralized management at the system level that has stripped campuses of some autonomy, the departure of three campus presidents in the past year, and a series of other moves dating back to the start of Malloy’s tenure.

No-confidence votes can often be a precursor to high-level administrators leaving their posts. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Malloy’s days are numbered. One UMaine System chancellor who faced no-confidence votes from faculty at all seven campuses in the 1990s resigned weeks later. About a decade after that, another chancellor who faced no-confidence votes lasted almost two more years on the job.

The recent votes can be interpreted in two ways, said Jim McClymer, a University of Maine physics professor who leads the union representing University of Maine System faculty, the Associated Faculties of the Universities of Maine.

“It can mean you can fix yourself or you can’t,” he said. “I imagine if you talked to the faculty, they would think it is too far gone to be fixed.”

Malloy said he and his leadership team “are taking concrete steps to improve transparency and communication” and that he’s willing to work on improving his relationships with system faculty and staff.

“I remain fully confident that I can advance the priorities the Board of Trustees hired me to achieve while doing so,” he said.

Surge of no confidence

The no-confidence votes in Malloy are part of a surge of such votes across the country. Seven of the past eight years have seen record-setting numbers of faculty no-confidence votes, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Last year saw faculty members at 24 campuses cast no-confidence votes, according to the publication.

Professors have cast such votes as they have objected to budget cuts and restructuring. Also, higher education leaders who come from outside academia and are selected with limited faculty input can more easily become the object of no-confidence votes, the Chronicle reported.

Malloy moved to the UMaine System after two terms as Connecticut governor and 14 years as the mayor of Stamford, Connecticut.

While the role of higher education leaders has shifted to become more externally and politically focused, the faculty vote of no confidence remains significant, according to a 2017 study in the Journal of Research on the College President.

The researchers examined no-confidence votes at 57 institutions and found that 56 percent of leaders who were the object of those votes left their positions within six months.

Faculty members are never eager to cast such votes, said Lydia Savage, co-vice president of the University of Maine System’s faculty union and a University of Southern Maine geography professor.

“This time of year, we are busy with end-of-the-year activities and students, and we’re exhausted. A five-and-a-half-hour meeting to discuss [these concerns], that’s serious,” Savage said. “We just want to teach and be with our students, so having to do this stuff is really not how we want to spend our free time.”

In 1995, faculty members at all seven University of Maine System campuses cast votes of no confidence in Chancellor Michael Orenduff, amid his efforts to expand a 1990s version of remote learning through the system’s interactive television network and an intention to require that system graduates take exit exams. Faculty were also working without a contract.

Orenduff resigned within weeks of the votes, and was named the president of New Mexico State University just weeks after his resignation.

About nine years later, in 2004, professors in Machias and Augusta cast votes of no confidence against Chancellor Joseph Westphal on the heels of a cost-saving plan that never came to fruition.

That plan would have merged UMA with USM, created a consortium among the system’s smaller campuses in Machias, Presque Isle and Fort Kent, and moved all two-year programs to the community college system. Faculty members said they were left out of the planning process.

Unlike Orenduff, Westphal remained in his position about a year-and-a-half longer, until 2006.

Later, after a brief stint leading the New School in New York, Westphal joined President Barack Obama’s transition team and became the ambassador to Saudi Arabia in 2014.

Frustrations from the start

Faculty members’ frustrations with Malloy didn’t start with the UMA presidential search and the cuts at UMF.

They date back to the start of his tenure and one of the first initiatives he pursued — a unified accreditation for the University of Maine System.

It’s a concept the university system had considered since its 1968 inception, and it became a reality less than a year after Malloy became chancellor.

Accreditation is the stamp of approval from a regional evaluating agency that says an educational institution has academic programs that meet basic standards, sufficient facilities and a particular organizational structure.

Rather than having each campus meet those expectations separately, the unified accreditation from the New England Commission of Higher Education allows the system as a whole to meet them.

Malloy and system administrators argued that unified accreditation would allow the seven universities in the University of Maine System to share resources, faculty and services to a greater extent. But faculty have raised concerns that the model leads to less autonomy for individual campuses.

In their no-confidence resolution, USM faculty said the university system rushed unified accreditation through without sufficient staff and faculty feedback and “without any clear vision or explanation as to how it improves upon the existing model for cooperating departments.” The result is an impression that unified accreditation is simply a means to shrink the faculty, the resolution said.

As the system was rolling out unified accreditation, it also introduced a change to retirees’ health benefits that quickly came under fire, as the system didn’t negotiate the changes through collective bargaining and gave little advance notice.

The change would have switched university system retirees from a defined benefit to a defined contribution health plan. A defined contribution plan provides retirees a certain amount of money to access undefined health benefits. A defined benefit plan entitles retirees to benefits outlined ahead of time, irrespective of the cost.

The switch was expected to save the public university system $2.5 million annually. But retirees worried that the switch would increase health care costs in the middle of a pandemic.

Eleven retirees sued the university system over the changes. This, along with the public outcry, led the system to offer retirees the option to continue with their existing health plan.

“That left a bad taste in our mouth and almost feels like a betrayal of a partnership,” McClymer said.

A chance to recover

Malloy launched an immediate review of all active employment searches across the university system, including those led by outside search firms, following the first vote of no confidence at UMA.

Additionally, the system is reviewing all human resources policies related to employment searches, Malloy said.

Malloy could recover from the blows, but McClymer said Malloy’s response has been focused too closely on the UMA presidential search and not enough on faculty members’ other concerns.

“There’s been a lot of concerns growing for a long time,” he said. “The fact that in the response, he ignored all other concerns, I think, really showed faculty that some drastic action was needed.”

Sawyer Loftus is an investigative reporter at the Bangor Daily News. A graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he worked for Vermont Public Radio, The Burlington Free Press...