University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy didn’t say Wednesday whether he would continue to lead the public university system if its trustees gave him the option to.
Malloy sat down for an interview with the Bangor Daily News at the end of a year punctuated by a failed search for the University of Maine at Augusta’s new president, cuts at the University of Maine at Farmington that resulted in the departure of 18 professors and has led some students to reconsider their study plans, and budget gaps caused largely by a decline in enrollment.
Malloy also reflected on a new state program that’s allowing pandemic-era Maine high school graduates to attend the state’s community colleges for free. Community colleges have seen a bump in enrollment this fall, while university enrollment has dropped.
Following is a transcript of the interview, with edits for length and clarity.
BDN: The system has faced many challenges this year. Sitting back and reflecting on this past year, are there any particular moments that stand out in your mind that you’re most proud of?
Malloy: I think we had a great semester, quite frankly, the most normal one that we’ve had since the beginning of COVID. And being in a position where we had 96 percent of our in-classroom students fully vaccinated and our full-time employees nearly fully vaccinated allowed for that to happen.
Quite frankly, it allowed us to enjoy a great first half of the year, and I’m so very proud of the coming together around keeping one another safe and keeping the communities where we operate safer.
I think our investment in infrastructure, on an ongoing basis across the campuses, is another strength. We are a system that has underinvested in its infrastructure for the better part of 50 years, and we’re trying to turn the corner on that.
BDN: There are mounting financial gaps at multiple campuses, forcing smaller ones to dig into reserves, and lower enrollment across the board. Is there a looming budget crisis, or just rough waters ahead?
Malloy: I think it’s more rough waters. Let’s look at the big picture of enrollment. We’ve held up better than most northern state university systems, and certainly a lot better than community colleges nationally. I’m not talking about locally.
We’ve, in some senses, weathered the storm better than many others. And then when you look at our in-state demographics, and quite frankly, our New England demographics — which is where we get, between Maine and the rest of New England, the vast majority of our students come from — we’ve done pretty well.
With the opportunity for students to have a year or two at the community colleges, I think that that impacted our later harvest of students. And I hope that that doesn’t happen again.
Quite frankly, one of our biggest worries, and one of the things that I worried about greatly, was when our community colleges were losing large swaths of their population. It’s the second largest place we get our students from…so it’s important. Their strength is ultimately one of our strengths.
BDN: Should smaller campuses like UMPI and UMFK be worried that similar measures will be taken there as at Farmington?
Malloy: I think one of the things that we did was to offer a two-pronged approach to early retirement or, excuse me, planned retirement. And with that tool, I think, not only did we limit the number of retrenchments at Farmington, we undoubtedly limited the need for large-scale retrenchments in out-years.
That doesn’t mean that we’re home free. You need a faculty to meet the size of your student body’s needs. And so that may mean that there’s growth in some areas, and there are cuts in others.
And we don’t have proposed budgets yet from the other universities, so it’s difficult for me to answer that.
BDN: You have noted multiple times a priority of yours is to bolster the value of a UMaine System education. How do you square that with the student experience in Farmington?
Malloy: Listen, I think the return on investment analysis will demonstrate that the University of Maine’s graduates and degrees hold up pretty well. There is a reality that some of our universities have lost substantial portions of their student body. And that shouldn’t surprise anyone that that causes adjustments to be made, particularly in an environment where we largely enjoy support from the state. But costs are outrunning the support from the state and that creates its own difficulties.
BDN: You blamed an overreliance on an outside search firm for the failure of the first search for a new president of the University of Maine at Augusta. Yet the restarted search will take a strikingly similar form as the first one, with an outside firm screening candidates and presenting those it considers qualified to a search committee. Is the system setting itself up for failure once again?
Malloy: Well, the committee reviews the applications. It is the job of the consultants to gather information to help the committee through that process.
But those decisions need to be made and will be made by the committee, which is well led by an experienced trustee. And so I’m confident that they’ll produce a candidate that is deemed appropriate by the campus as well.
BDN: There are about six months left on your contract. Are these your last months leading the UMaine System?
Malloy: I think that’s largely up to the board and we’ll, we’ll see how that moves forward.
I would say that the reality is that we’re in the midst of making the changes within the system that should allow the system to be stronger in the future than it otherwise would have been.
Some of those are hard decisions to make and hard conversations to have. But they need to be had. We’re the oldest state in the nation, in the oldest part of the nation, and demographic challenges are going to play themselves out.
How we can counter that — whether that’s with additional online programs, attracting additional students from out of state, or other adjustments that we make — remains to be seen and ultimately is in the hands of the trustees.
BDN: I just want to ask a follow-up. Specifically, if the trustees give you a choice, would you accept?
Malloy: You know, that’s a discussion that, you know, we’ll have at some point, and you know, I don’t want to be presumptive on that point, either.