One of Dannel Malloy’s first initiatives as the University of Maine System’s chancellor will face its most serious test yet this week, as a team of evaluators descends on the University of Maine’s campus in Orono to determine whether the public university system should maintain its accreditation.
The evaluators will determine whether the University of Maine System should keep its overall seal of approval that signals it’s providing students with a high-quality education and should continue to receive federal financial aid funding.
What sets this visit apart is that the University of Maine System in 2020 became the first public higher education system in the nation to pursue a system-level accreditation, as opposed to individual accreditation for each campus, which the system’s seven universities maintained for decades before.
The unified accreditation was one of the first initiatives Malloy pursued when he became chancellor in 2019. It was meant to allow the system’s seven universities to share resources, faculty and services to a greater extent.
But the initiative has since come under criticism from faculty members who have said the model removes decision-making autonomy from individual campuses and that the university system rushed the change through, leaving an impression that it was a way to shrink the faculty. A faculty union representative said professors feel they have to be constantly vigilant of system changes that happen under the guise of unified accreditation.
The accreditors’ visit also follows a period in which Malloy’s leadership has come under fire after the university system’s bungled search for a new University of Maine at Augusta president and the loss of 18 professors at the University of Maine at Farmington due to cuts and early retirements. Faculty at three of the system’s universities cast votes of no confidence in Malloy last spring. And while the system extended his contract for a year in July, the extension came with an explicit call for Malloy to rebuild trust and improve his performance.
On Monday, a team from the regional accrediting agency, the New England Commission of Higher Education, will meet with members of the University of Maine System and evaluate whether the system is fulfilling the commission’s nine standards for accreditation.
For several days, the team, made up of regional higher education leaders, will determine whether the University of Maine System can keep its unique, system-wide accreditation.
The New England Commission of Higher Education granted the UMaine system its unified accreditation in July 2020. And a two-person team from the commission visited in March 2021 to follow up. If the team of evaluators this week continues the single accreditation, the University of Maine System’s next holistic evaluation won’t happen for another decade.
System staff, faculty and students have worked since the start of last year to produce a nearly 600-page self-study ahead of the evaluators’ visit.
“I think we’re excited. We are a unified accredited institution and have been for two years, and this is about our long-term accreditation status,” Malloy said of the coming visit. “We know what we have to do. We’ve been working extremely hard on that and prepared a very extensive report for them.”
Despite the turbulence in recent months, Trish Riley, chair of the system’s board of trustees, said system leaders are “feeling confident, but not cocky” ahead of the evaluators’ visit.
“We need to be tested by our accreditor, and this is a really important visit, and we plan to rise to the occasion,” Riley said. “I think the chancellor has been absolutely consistent, despite the challenges, in working hard with his team to make sure we’re ready for this.”
Currently, the UMaine system is in “good standing” with its regional accreditor, which makes it unlikely that the upcoming visit would result in the system losing its accreditation, said Jeff St. John, the system’s associate vice chancellor for accreditation and strategic initiatives.
“It would be highly unusual for any institution to come into a review in good standing and come out of that review with an evaluation that said, ‘Well, no, this university should not be continued in accreditation,’” St. John said.
What the system does expect is to receive some specific suggestions for improvement, he said.
“It gives us a chance to be evaluated and get an informed, outside perspective on how we’re doing and areas where we can do what we do better,” he said.
In its self-study, the system didn’t identify any specific benchmarks on which it was falling short. However, many faculty have been concerned about losing their individual campus autonomy and identities from the start of the move to unified accreditation.
The union that represents professors from across the system has consistently raised concerns with the accreditation.
“We will participate as we have done all along, but I think many people feel like this has just been a done deal from the get-go and that our feedback does not matter,” said Lydia Savage, a University of Southern Maine geography professor and council member of the Associated Faculties of the Universities of Maine.
Fundamentally, faculty want to teach and do their research, Savage said. But the unified accreditation process has made many professors feel as if they have to be constantly vigilant of university system moves, she said.
“This has been exhausting,” Savage said. “And it doesn’t feel very good. It doesn’t feel productive.”
One concern faculty have raised about unified accreditation has to do with its effect on smaller campuses. If the system no longer has to seek individual accreditation for each campus, faculty worry the system will be able to reduce offerings on these campuses and that, as a result, each campus will no longer be able to stand on its own.
St. John said he doesn’t expect the recent UMA president search and faculty cuts in Farmington will have a significant impact on the accreditors’ report.
“Certainly, the evaluation team does hear about matters of importance or concern to faculty or staff,” he said, “but the focus is on the fulfillment of our obligations to the express standards that we have agreed to meet as a NECHE-accredited institution.”