Former Governor Paul LePage and University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy. Credit: BDN Composite

Life could grow more difficult for University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy during a third Paul LePage administration, if comments from the former governor during a Thursday debate are any indication.

During his second debate with Gov. Janet Mills, LePage said he would tell Malloy “it’s time for you to go,” and that he would like to see Leigh Saufley, dean of the University of Maine School of Law and the longtime former chief justice of Maine’s high court, serve as chancellor instead.

LePage reappointed Saufley as chief justice during his time in office and said in 2018 that he adores her. Malloy served as the Democratic governor of Connecticut at the same time LePage was in office.

University system officials declined to comment on LePage’s remarks.

LePage’s comments came in response to a question about steps he and Mills would take in higher education to ensure the state is training the workforce it needs to grow its economy.

In addition to calling for Malloy to leave, LePage called the state’s university system a “CRT,” or critical race theory, university while celebrating Maine’s community colleges and advocating for more focus on technical education earlier in school.

The governor has no authority to hire or fire a university system chancellor, but LePage’s comments about Malloy, as well as his successful effort while in office to force another higher education leader from his post, offer hints about what the university system chancellor’s life could be like if LePage is once again elected governor.

For her part, Mills hasn’t said much about Malloy in the months since he came under fire for a bungled search for a new president at the University of Maine at Augusta and cuts at the University of Maine at Farmington.

Mills said in May that university system trustees would “do the right thing” in deciding whether to renew Malloy’s contract, which the trustees extended by a year in July. At Thursday’s debate, she didn’t mention Malloy’s name, and she celebrated research happening at UMaine.

LePage’s remarks about Malloy were reminiscent of 2015, when the then-governor called on John Fitzsimmons, president of the Maine Community College System, to resign. He said the system’s trustees would “feel the wrath” if Fitzsimmons didn’t step down, and that the system was lucky he had merely proposed flat-funding its budget that year.

“He’s lucky I didn’t cut them,” LePage said at the time.

LePage said he had been upset that the community college system had withdrawn from his Bridge Year initiative that allows high school students to earn college credit, and that it hadn’t established full credit transferability with the University of Maine System. He called the system “stagnant” under Fitzsimmons.

While LePage had no authority to fire the community college system’s president and the system’s trustees were behind him, Fitzsimmons stepped down within days of the governor calling for his departure. Fitzsimmons said at the time that LePage held too much leverage over the system, and the system was at risk of political retribution if he continued to lead it.

“Equally important, when the chief executive of the state is telling people that nothing has happened for four years, that does harm to our system. Of course, it’s a baseless claim, but he has a very big bully pulpit,” Fitzsimmons told the Bangor Daily News in 2015.

The governor does wield power over how much state funding could flow to the University of Maine System, and that’s of great concern to the system as it projects shortfalls that could total $40 million between now and 2027.

In July, Ryan Low, the system’s vice chancellor for finance and administration, said one factor officials are taking into account as they plan for the coming years is the result of November’s gubernatorial election.

The system has seen its annual appropriation from the state reach a record level and grow faster during Mills’ first term than it did during LePage’s two terms in office from 2011 to 2019.

The system will likely need to see its appropriation continue to rise to make ends meet and avoid multi million-dollar budget gaps and significant tuition hikes.

The university system’s projections of a $40 million shortfall are based on an assumption that the Legislature will increase its appropriation by 6 percent in the next year and then 3 percent in each of the following years.

But there is no guarantee of those increases.

If the appropriation dropped by 3 percent next year, then by 1.5 percent the following year before remaining flat, the system would see its projected deficit through 2027 rise by another $37.7 million, according to Low.

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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...