University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy faced questions from lawmakers Thursday about a bungled search for a new president of the University of Maine at Augusta and other matters. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy said Thursday that overreliance on an outside consultant led to “bad decision-making” in the recent bungled search for a new president of the University of Maine at Augusta.

Malloy’s comments came in response to some of the most incisive questions yet for University of Maine System leaders following the failed search for UMA’s new leader, which resulted in the chosen candidate backing out before starting the job but on the UMaine System payroll at $235,000 annually for up to 35 months.

The search prompted no-confidence votes from faculty at three of the public system’s seven universities.

Malloy and Trish Riley, the newly appointed chair of the university system board of trustees, appeared before the Legislature’s education committee for two hours and faced questions about the UMA presidential search, cuts to academic programs and how the system plans to repair relations with professors.

“Mistakes were made, particularly around the University of Maine at Augusta search,” Malloy told the lawmakers who oversee the university system. “The overreliance on an outside search consultant led to bad decision-making. Because I believe people should be held accountable, I have accepted that obligation, that mistakes were made. Bad mistakes.”

Riley, however, was short on specifics about how trustees plan to hold Malloy accountable, saying it was a personnel matter.

The chancellor’s three-year contract, under which he’s paid $350,000 annually, is up on June 30. However, Riley said Thursday that the university system has temporarily extended the chancellor’s contract until July 11, when the board of trustees next meet and are expected to decide on a new contract.

A university system spokesperson said later Thursday that Malloy can continue to serve past his contract’s expiration under a “mutual agreement” between Riley and Malloy, “upon the advice of counsel.”

The university system announced in April that it had chosen Michael Laliberte as the next leader of UMA. The next month, however, the Bangor Daily News reported that Laliberte had faced a faculty vote of no confidence at his previous institution in New York. Subsequent reporting showed that neither Malloy nor the trustee leading the search committee never shared that information with the full search committee. Malloy later said he relied on the advice of the outside firm coordinating the search in not disclosing the vote to the full committee.

Laliberte later withdrew before his scheduled Aug. 1 start, but with a deal that guarantees he’ll be paid at least $235,000 annually over the nearly three-year life of his contract even though he’ll never work for the UMaine System.

“I was frankly shocked, and appalled, to learn that the gentleman selected may get a payout for three years,” said Rep. Ed Crockett, D-Portland. “It’s quite the common practice for an annual payout if you will, but anything beyond it, frankly, I’ve never seen before. I think it was mishandled.”

Riley and Malloy on Thursday didn’t specifically detail how that payout — which is highly unusual in higher education — came to be. Malloy said system lawyers formed the agreement and that he had no part of it.

The bungled search prompted faculty at three university campuses to cast no-confidence votes on the former Connecticut governor’s leadership of the system, and professors at the system’s four other universities have issued letters of support for those votes. More recently, the faculty senate at the flagship University of Maine in Orono has said it could consider a no-confidence vote in Malloy when classes resume in the fall.

During Thursday’s meeting with lawmakers, Crockett said he and other legislators have received many letters from faculty members calling for the chancellor’s removal and pushed Riley to provide more information on how the board plans to hold the chancellor accountable.

But Riley said she couldn’t provide specific information other than to announce Malloy’s short-term contract extension, as it is a personnel matter.

Malloy and Riley both said they are working to develop a new plan for communicating with university faculty. Malloy said he’s gone on dozens of visits to campuses.

“I have to say that when I hear that each of the campuses was visited 66 times by the chancellor and there remains this significant level of distrust, I would be very interested to know how the administration and board of trustees would change these visits to have a better outcome,” Rep. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, said.

Riley said the board is in the early stages of working with a consultant, the Huron Group, to create a new strategic plan. Part of that process will be to better define how to communicate with faculty.

Additionally, in this next round of trustee meetings one faculty representative will have a seat at the trustees’ table during meetings, she said.

“We hear loud and clear, loud and clear, that they do not feel heard,” Riley said.

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Sawyer Loftus

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...