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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“Mistakes were made.”

In politics, it is a phrase so ubiquitous as to be comical. Whether you realize it or not, it is something you have heard dozens, perhaps hundreds of times before, always uttered by a person trying to squirm their way out of hot water. So common is the phrase that there are actually mashups on YouTube of political figures like Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama using it.

You will note the clever construction of the phrase.

It sounds like an acknowledgment of wrong, doesn’t it? After all, mistakes were made! That means that something was supposed to happen a certain way, and it didn’t. There was, in the end, some kind of mistake. And somebody made it.

But who, exactly, is responsible for the aforementioned mistake?

Not the speaker of this phrase, that’s for sure. If they were interested in accepting responsibility for the deed in question, they would say something like, “I made a mistake.” Saying “mistakes were made” leaves the question of guilt or responsibility unanswered, assigning it to neither one’s self or anyone else.

By failing to identify a culpable party, the deviously clever politician-in-damage-control manages to avoid blame themselves, while also not inviting any antagonism from anyone else. In the end, this, one of the all-time cliche political aphorisms of our time, is meant to give the appearance of  an acceptance of accountability without any of the messy trouble of actually having any.

Which is exactly what University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy was trying to do last week when he used the phrase while answering questions from the Legislature’s Education Committee last Thursday.

“Mistakes were made, particularly around the University of Maine at Augusta search,” Malloy said at one point. “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.”

Notice what he has done here. Malloy states that things went wrong, then points the finger at an easy boogeyman, an outside consulting firm involved in the search, before unconvincingly saying that he “accepted [the] obligation” to be held accountable, before yet again repeating that “mistakes were made.”

This kind of non-answer should be no surprise coming from Malloy, a career politician who ruined Connecticut’s economy. Prior to becoming chancellor, Malloy served two terms as governor of Connecticut, where he proved to be an economically incompetent and shockingly unpopular executive.

In one survey conducted at the tail end of his tenure, Malloy registered a 14.6 percent approval rating. For context, at the time the poll was conducted (October 2018) President Donald Trump had a 35 percent approval rating. Thus Malloy — a Democrat in an overwhelmingly Democratic state — was so unpopular that his approval was less than half of Trump’s. I’ve never quite seen anything like that in 20 years in politics.

For those familiar with his career, he was always an odd choice to lead the University of Maine System, and I was gobsmacked when I heard he had landed the job. But somehow he did, and here we sit viewing his failed leadership of the system. Due to his mismanagement of the Augusta presidential hiring, the system is likely on the hook for roughly $700,000 over the next three years. That, though, is not the end of the complaints against him, as faculty senates at three system schools have formally registered their opposition to his leadership.

And yet somehow, the board of trustees is still considering a continuation of his contract, now that it is coming due. The trustees have already extended the length of his contract for a short time, apparently against their own well-established policies for contract renewals, and upon the next meeting of the board, there is the possibility that he may continue.

If they do so, the decision will be unconscionable. As a person who cares deeply for the university system, in particular its flagship campus, the last thing I want to see is it run into the ground by the incompetence of a politician inappropriately leading it. His continuation as chancellor can not be tolerated.

Alumni should stand up and demand trustees not renew his contract in July. Lawmakers, in their role, should make expressly clear that if he continues, funding for the system will be affected. The message would then, I think, get through.

Whatever happens in the future for the University of Maine System, I believe Malloy has to go. The biggest “mistake that was made” was his hiring in the first place.

Matthew Gagnon, Opinion columnist

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist...