Michael Laliberte resigned as the president of the University of Maine at Augusta before he started the position. Credit: Courtesy of the University of Maine System

The outcome of the University of Maine System’s recent search for a campus president — in which the man chosen for the job withdrew but will receive his salary for up to 35 months — is exceptionally rare, according to a researcher who has studied the hiring of higher education administrators for more than a decade.

The University of Maine System will be on the hook for nearly three years to ensure that Michael Laliberte earns at least $205,000 annually, the amount he would have been paid as president of the University of Maine at Augusta if he hadn’t withdrawn from the job before his scheduled Aug. 1 start.

He withdrew following a bungled search in which University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy and the trustee leading the search committee didn’t inform the full committee that Laliberte faced a vote of no confidence from faculty at his most recent institution less than a year ago. The student government there similarly cast a vote of no confidence in Laliberte and asked for his resignation.

Under an agreement Laliberte reached, Maine’s university system will pay him his full $205,000 salary for what would have been the first year of his appointment. After that, as long as Laliberte is seeking employment or employed, the university system will compensate him the difference to ensure he earns at least $205,000 annually.

The arrangement could cost the University of Maine System nearly $600,000 through the end of Laliberte’s contract in 2025.

Judith Wilde, a former college administrator and current researcher at George Mason University who has devoted more than a decade to studying the role of search firms in public university presidential searches, said she hasn’t seen another situation in which someone hired to lead a university but stepped down before starting has been paid.

Wilde and her research partner, Jim Finkelstein, have looked at hundreds of presidential searches. Plenty have resulted in candidates being selected and ultimately withdrawing before they started due to controversy and other reasons. However, neither Wilde nor Finkelstein has come upon an example in which someone has withdrawn and been paid.

It’s more common for presidents to be fired without cause after they’ve begun serving, then to be paid for the remainder of their contracts. Increasingly, presidents are going back to the bargaining table to negotiate “exit contracts” that often come with larger payouts than what is already specified in their contracts, she said.

In the UMA presidential search, the university system relied on the search firm Storbeck Search, paying the company $70,000. The system contracted with the firm on other searches, including the 2020 search for a president-provost role at the University of Maine at Fort Kent and the 2018 search for the University of Maine at Farmington’s president.

Universities often hire consultants who drive and conduct secretive searches that don’t allow individual members of the committee to share information publicly or at times even discuss some aspects of a candidate, Wilde said.

A Storbeck-supplied code of ethics that UMA search committee members signed required that members first bring “reports of concern” about candidates to the committee’s chair “in order to allow for checks on their accuracy before sharing widely.”

Malloy, the university system chancellor, and Sven Bartholomew, the trustee who led the search committee, said they relied on advice from the Storbeck search consultant in not sharing their knowledge of a previous no-confidence vote against Laliberte with the rest of the committee.

Storbeck did not respond to a request for comment but told the Chronicle of Higher Education that it didn’t provide that advice.

The information that was withheld from the search committee could have been a game-changer, Wilde said. Faculty no-confidence votes are rare. While last year marked a high point for the number of faculty no-confidence votes cast against higher education leaders, there still were only 24 such votes, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

If the search for Laliberte had been more public, “I can’t guarantee it would have been found out but I would give you a 99 percent probability that the votes would have been found out before he was named as a finalist,” Wilde said. “And it probably would have kept him from being named as a finalist.”

Following the bungled UMA search, Malloy has faced the most serious test yet of his leadership since being named the University of Maine System’s chancellor in 2019.

Faculty from UMA, the University of Southern Maine and the University of Maine at Farmington have cast votes of no confidence in his leadership while faculty from the system’s four other universities have issued letters of support for the votes. UMA faculty also called for the presidential search to be restarted.

Malloy has promised a review of all ongoing searches within the system, including those led by outside firms, as well as other policies that govern searches and hiring. He also said he’ll propose that candidates for campus president and provost positions declare whether they have been the subjects of no-confidence votes.

Moving forward, Wilde said the University of Maine System needs to learn from its mistakes and trust that people in the system can find the right job candidates, rather than allowing outside search firms to lead the process.

“I can see where a university or college might want to have a search firm involved,” she said. “I think universities and colleges need to take hold of the reins themselves and recognize this as someone they’re going to be living with for some time.”

Taking control back from the search firms means universities and colleges should be writing the contracts with these firms, not the other way around, Wilde said.

UMaine System spokesperson Margaret Nagle said the agreement with Laliberte has not yet been signed and finalized, but it will be public when it is. Nagle noted that this has been “a difficult process for all involved,” but that the system made the right decision in the end.

“Although we believe that Dr. Laliberte has the skills, talent, and integrity to lead UMA, we have decided that it is best that we listen to and support the UMA Faculty Senate in their desire to revisit the search for the next UMA President,” she said. “We also want to repeat here that we all should have ensured that the entire UMA presidential search committee was fully informed, during the interview process, about the October 2021 SUNY Delhi College Senate vote of no-confidence.”

Sawyer Loftus

Sawyer Loftus is a reporter covering Old Town, Orono and the surrounding areas. A recent graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he's worked for Vermont Public Radio, The...