University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy listens to presentations during the board meeting May 22, 2022 at the Glickman Library at the University of Southern Maine. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

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A Democratic governor in Maine is in a lot of trouble.  

I mean Dannel Malloy. Who did you think I was talking about?

The University of Maine System chancellor is on the receiving end of 3 1/2 no confidence votes from faculty at campuses across the state. The system itself is facing a shortfall of nearly $19 million. It may owe a now-withdrawn presidential candidate for the University of Maine at Augusta nearly $600,000.

Not an enviable spot.

For those who may have better things to do with their time than follow politics, Malloy was the Democratic governor of Connecticut from 2011 to 2019. Before that, he had been the mayor of Stamford for 14 years.  

His earlier career was entirely as a lawyer. He was an assistant district attorney in New York prior to pivoting to private practice. His academic resume as a student was strong, but he had no experience leading educational institutions.

Shortly after he left office in Connecticut, he was offered the chancellorship of the University of Maine System. He took over July 1, 2019.

Malloy’s path into education is not uncommon. The president of Purdue University is former GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana. Like Malloy, Daniels had no prior educational leadership experience; he had spent his pre-politics career in business. Unlike Malloy, his collegiate tenure has been marked by successes, including the acquisition of Kaplan University and its reinvigoration as a nonprofit, distance learning organization under Purdue.  

So politicians make great educational leaders. Unless they don’t.

This will open old wounds in our current gubernatorial race.

Gov. Janet Mills is taking a hands-off approach to the Malloy controversy, leaving it in the hands of the trustees she and other governors appointed to the university system. There are some very capable people on that board. The final chapter is not yet written in that story.

However, it highlights a major difference between Mills and former Gov. Paul LePage.

LePage was clear and unyielding in his advocacy for independent education. This was most apparent in his support of charter schools, but it was also reflected in his support of other private educational efforts.

One was Good Will-Hinkley in Fairfield. At the start of the LePage administration, it was led by former Democratic House Speaker Glenn Cummings of Portland. While Cummings had followed the politics-to-education path, his background included significant education experience.  

While they might seem like strange allies, Cummings and LePage worked closely to advance Good Will-Hinkley’s mission. LePage would utilize his discretionary funds as governor to help them along. Then Cummings had the opportunity to lead the University of Maine at Augusta on an interim basis, so he stepped aside.

Cue the old wounds.

Good Will-Hinkley undertook a search for a new executive director. Their board landed on then-Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves. Eves, like Malloy, had no real experience leading educational institutions. Eves was also a vocal opponent of charter schools.

Where Mills is taking a hands-off approach with Malloy, LePage was hands-on.

It was the stuff of lawsuits and legislative investigations, but LePage made clear that he did not believe Eves was suited to lead the institution. He told Good Will-Hinkley that hiring him would lead to a loss of future support from his office, including his discretionary grants.

Drama ensued.

While the university system trustees are independent of the governor’s office, their decision with respect to Malloy will inevitably play a role in November’s election. If the tense debates in local school boards over the last two years are any indication, education is on many voters’ minds.  

At least one Democratic governor in Maine is in trouble. Time will tell whether that number increases.

Michael Cianchette, Opinion columnist

Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan. He is in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine and was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage.