Rift develops as faculty take sides for and against Botman

Posted on April 15, 2012 in News
By Noah Hurowitz

Physics Professor Jerry LaSala is a vocal critic of President Botman.
Alex Greenlee
Physics Professor Jerry LaSala is a vocal critic of President Botman.
Members of faculty opposing and supporting University of Southern Maine President Selma Botman have released statements outlining their support for or opposition to voting no confidence in the embattled president.

Meetings Wednesday and Friday last week in Portland and Gorham provided a forum for faculty to air their grievances toward the president or declare their support for her, with a major split appearing between those who support the president and those who stand with the group of 53 senior faculty who circulated and signed a petition earlier this month triggering a vote of no confidence in Botman.  The vote will be held later this month, though details are not finalized.

At the Wednesday meeting in Portland organized by the Faculty Senate Executive Committee  to discuss the no-confidence vote, faculty members who oppose Botman released an unofficial list of grievances and justifications for their criticism of the president.

Academic reorganization, the process designed to streamline the university by consolidating the administrative levels of different academic schools into several colleges, which was finalized in the spring of 2011, was a major focus of the list of grievances. A dominant theme throughout, the faculty members writing the list have argued, is a top-down management style that compromises Botman’s working relationship with professors and, in the past, senior administrators.

“She simply does not listen,” said Jerry LaSala, professor of physics, who helped draft the list of grievances. “Working one-on-one she’s mostly fine, but with the [Faculty] Senate she is very frustrating.”

The document said Botman had gone back on a promise that allowed academic colleges, once consolidated, to internally organize themselves as they saw fit, including the shuffling of departments from one college to another. Botman and her supporters have denied this, however. In a list handed out at a faculty discussion Friday in Gorham that responded point-by-point to the grievances, supportive faculty argued some models for organization were put forward that were rejected because the statewide faculty union said they violated the faculty contract.

Botman, for her part, said she simply followed recommendations from faculty, college deans and Provost John Wright.

“In the end the reorganization was the purview of the provost meeting with the deans,” she said in a phone interview with The Free Press on Friday.

Professor of French Nancy Erickson, who helped draft the response to the list of grievances and a statement of support for Botman, said the faculty opposed to Botman have ulterior motives behind their opposition.

“When Selma came here a number of long-standing problems fell into her lap to fix, and the faculty have not been cooperative. These are people who benefited from the old regime,” Erickson said, referring to USM’s previous presidents — Joseph Wood and Richard Pattenaude — as the old regime, “who benefited from having no one look at their programs and not having to justify how few graduates they were producing.”

The list of grievances also accused Botman of ignoring or disbanding academic advisory committees whose advice she did not agree with, an allegation Botman denied.

“Sometimes groups have a utility for a period of time and then events overtake us,” Botman said. “There has never been an affirmative effort to disband any advisory committee.”

In an email, history professor and vocal supporter of the president, Eileen Eagan, scoffed at criticisms of Botman’s leadership style, writing “whatever she proposes comes from the top. Duh.”

Faculty in both camps have also disputed the motives behind the original petitioners’ decision to only circulate among full professors the petition calling for a no-confidence vote. The initiators of the petition said they did so in order to protect junior faculty from any possible retaliation. But some junior faculty who oppose the vote have said it was undemocratic and patronizing to not include them in the petition.

Faculty Senate Chair Jeannine Diddle Uzzi, who as an associate professor did not sign the petition but has stated her opposition to Botman, said despite the petition being restricted, the larger discussion is not. Uzzi said there was no effort to keep the petition a secret when it was circulating.

“The bylaws lay out a process by which any minority group can initiate a referendum,” Uzzi said. “So the professors can be characterized as a cabal with evil intentions or as a really brave minority group who took one for the team and tried to protect their junior colleagues.”

But Eagan, also an associate professor, said there are many junior faculty who do not fear any retaliation from the president and that they did not ask for protection from senior faculty.

“Their statement that they were ‘protecting’ the associate and assistant professors is at best paternalistic and condescending, at worst disingenuous,” she wrote in an email. “Speaking as as associate professor and thus one of the excluded group I say, ‘Thanks but let us decide for ourselves.’”