The university system's accreditor criticized this week its use of outside consultants, while highlighting some of the system's strengths.
In this May 22, 2022, file photo, University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy listens to presentations during the board meeting at the Glickman Library at the University of Southern Maine. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

The team sent by the University of Maine System’s regional accreditor highlighted the system’s strengths while also expressing concern about its use of outside consultants.

After the multi-day comprehensive evaluation, Chancellor Dannel Malloy said he feels that the review team’s exit report marked a “clear endorsement” of one of his first initiatives when he was hired to lead the state’s public university system.

Since 2020, the university system has held a unique accreditation status, meaning each of the seven universities within the system no longer has an individual accreditation. Unified accreditation was one of the first initiatives Malloy pursued when he became chancellor in 2019. It was meant to allow the seven universities to share resources, faculty and services to a greater extent.

Accreditation is a voluntary process, but without it, higher education institutions are disqualified from receiving federal funding for things like financial aid.

Earlier this week, a team of evaluators from other New England higher education intuitions, representing the university system’s regional accreditor the New England Commission of Higher Education, descended on the university system to comprehensively review how it was meeting the group’s accreditation standards.

In his exit report Wednesday morning, the chair of the evaluation team, Ross Gittell, the president of Bryant University in Rhode Island, highlighted what’s working in the system and what’s not. The latter category included a lack of strategic vision and the system’s reliance on outside consultants to help develop that new vision.

Since the rollout of unified accreditation, the initiative has come under criticism from faculty members who have said the model removes decision-making autonomy from campuses and that the system rushed the change through, leaving an impression that it was a way to shrink the faculty.

This visit by the accreditation team is a critical step for the University of Maine System to keep its first in the nation system-level accreditation, as opposed to individual accreditation for each campus, which the system’s seven universities maintained for decades before.

In his remarks Wednesday, Gittell said the system has strong financial support and the recent ascension of the University of Maine to R1 research status are key factors in the system’s overall success. The evaluation team was concerned that the university system has not had a central, strategic plan and vision in place in nearly two decades.

“Without a strategic, well communicated, and supported plan, and without clear identification of key goals, primaries and metrics and specific plans and timelines for achieving the goals it is hard for the University of Maine System to move forward in a unified way,” Gittell said.

The system had been developing a strategic plan before Malloy was hired as the chancellor. As part of his hiring, one key initiative laid out by the board of trustees, which Malloy answers to, developing and implementing a new one. The system hired the Huron Consulting Group, a Chicago-based firm, to help develop it.

Between 2011 and April 2022, the university system paid Huron at least $1.46 million for its consulting services, according to information the system provided to the BDN as a result of a public records request.

The evaluation team noted that reliance on Huron and other consultants is a concern, Gittell said. He also noted that faculty governance of the system still needs greater definition and clarity and access to resources across each of the system’s campuses remains challenged.

Despite the concerns, Malloy said he was happy with the visit and exit report.

“There was an obvious appreciation for the work that has been accomplished and I think good direction for the issues that need more attention,” Malloy said. “Quite frankly they clearly understand the gravity of the work that’s been undertaken as a first in the nation process. And it’s a clear endorsement of what we’re doing.”

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. 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.

Now that the evaluation team has concluded its visit, it will work in the coming weeks to write up its exit report and a confidential recommendation that it will give to the accreditor’s board that will ultimately decide the university system’s status in the coming months.

If the system clears the visit with a continued unified accreditation status, the next comprehensive visit like this would not come for another decade.

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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...