USM gets new president

Alex Greenlee | The Free Press

Posted on September 10, 2012 in Features, News
By Kirsten Sylvain

Selma Botman was the president of The University of Southern Maine for four years from 2009 to 2012. This summer she resigned her post after a drawn-out dispute with faculty that began with $242,000 that she awarded in controversial pay raises during a time of great financial struggle for the university. While some faculty members were clearly pitted against the president, USM faculty and administration were heavily divided.

Pay raises amid budget cuts

In March of this year a story published in The Portland Press Herald reinvigorated tensions between faculty and administration with 44  faculty members receiving raises while $5.1 million dollars was expected in budget cuts for the year.

According to the article, the program launched in 2005 was meant to ensure competitive pay. Over the past four years, the university has spent nearly $1 million on raises. Botman spent more than $240,000 in just one year on salary increases.   Salary increases ranged from three percent to forty-one percent, with Executive Director of University Outreach Michelene Larocque receiving the largest raise of $34,514.32.

Backlash from USM faculty, students and community members followed, with many University of Maine System faculty and staff going without raises since 2009. For others in the faculty union they were offered 0.5 percent increases after a full year of work without a contract. Ed Collom, Associate Professor of Sociology and President of the USM Associated Faculties of the Universities of Maine, the USM faculty union, told The Portland Press Herald that they were informed there was no money for raises. 

“I find it appalling that some faculty members are going to lose their jobs in the coming year and yet the administration found money to gives these raises,” Collom told The Portland Press Herald

Botman said that it was an attempt to give USM employees comparable salaries to those at other institutions in similar positions.

Chancellor James Page responded to the outcry on March 27 by calling for a halt on all discretionary raises and promising a review of the previous increases.

“Any compensation programs and policies have to reflect the people of Maine, ” Page told The Portland Press Herald.

Over half have no confidence

In April, following a story in The Portland Press Herald from the previous month, a group of senior faculty members drafted a petition for a vote of confidence in President Botman.

In a story done by the Maine Public Broadcasting Network, Jerry LaSala, Professor of Physics, explained why a petition was drafted in the first place.  According to LaSala, the petition was about more than irresponsible raises and lack of savings from the reorganization that Botman headed — it was about the way that she related to the faculty in general.

According to LaSala, President Botman failed to keep some of her promises to hire certain faculty members or let the colleges internally re-organize themselves. 

“There is no–that we see–there is no cumulative change in her behavior. We merely put out a fire and start over again. That’s the way it seems to us,” LaSala said.

Botman behaved more like a boss than a leader–the way that a university president is meant to, LaSala explained.

Prior to May’s no-confidence vote, a faculty survey sent out in March revealed that three-quarters of the respondents felt that USM’s leadership was inadequate. The petitioning faculty group said Botman often acted with “vindictiveness” towards faculty members who questioned her policies and that she created a negative atmosphere for students.

Some faculty, however, still contended that faculty at USM were simply not accustomed to change. French Professor Nancy Erickson told MPBN in May that she felt many professors weren’t used to a university run on the basis of a business model and that many were still struggling with the new changes. 

“I think there’s been a big shift in mentality to live within our means,” Erikson told MPBN.

Students, faculty and administration became further divided on the topic of the university’s leadership after the petitioners received the more than 10 percent of faculty signatures required to hold a vote. Former Student-Body President Chris Camire, who was firmly in support of President Botman, expressed his disgust with the move to set up a ‘no-confidence’ vote.

“I’m very ashamed to be a member of this university, to be a student of a university that would rather behead its own university rather than move forward positively,” Camire said that week in April to the Faculty Senate.

In a letter that Camire submitted to The Free Press that same week in April, he called for a unified university and for student and faculty support of Botman.

“I need to stand up and defend the students because this turmoil is disheartening and demoralizing them — it is weakening USM as a whole.”

His attempt to speak for the under-represented student body enraged one professor, Lydia Savage, Professor of Geography.  She responded in a letter to The Free Press on April 23. “While I respect your right to state your opinion, you do [not] represent the views of all the students,” she wrote. “Dissent is part of governance and democracy and is not factioning our community.”

Dissension among the faculty and administration eventually came to a head with the controversial May no confidence vote. Ballots came in over a period of two days, with a two-thirds vote needed to be considered the ‘will of the faculty.’ After the ballots were counted, the vote failed to produce a two-thirds majority, but an overwhelming number of faculty voted that they had no confidence. Sixty-eight percent voted that they had no confidence in Botman, with 75 percent of faculty represented.

For no confidence: 194 votes
Against no confidence: 88 votes
Total: 284 with two invalid ballots
Voter turnout: 284 out of 377 total USM faculty

The question that followed was how to read the results. Chancellor James Page clearly agreed that despite the vote’s failure to reach a two-thirds majority, the results were a serious indicator of a need for change at the university. Page issued a statement shortly after the results were in May that he intended to meet with all parties involved in the dispute in order to move USM forward.

“I support President Botman’s efforts to address these challenges, and at the same time I take the concerns raised by the Faculty Senate in its recent action very seriously,” Page wrote. “It is nevertheless essential that — at all times and especially now — the university community act in a unified way to serve our students and the people of Maine.”

Botman’s remained determined for the time being. She seemed stalwart to continue with her initiatives to move USM forward in the fields of mathematics, engineering, the sciences and in the visual and performing arts as well.

Botman steps down and Kalikow steps up

In July, Botman met with Chancellor Page for a series of confidential meetings to discuss the events of the 2011-2012 school year.  In those meetings, Botman resigned from her post as president of USM voluntarily. She offered to continue out the term of her contract in a new position in the chancellor’s office directing a program focused on the recruitment of international students and international programs.

Director of Public Relations for the University of Maine System (UMS) Peggy Markson, said that the terms of the agreement required that Selma draft a five year plan for creating the recruitment program, but that she will be evaluated after one year of work on the plan. She will submit a draft of the recruitment plan for all seven branches of the UMS in June of 2013.  Markson also commented that Botman will retain her $203,000 salary as a continuation of her previous contract.

Markson said that there has never really been a position comparable to Botman’s current one before in the UMS.  It is a sort of experimental position paid for by funds that used to belong the international program at the Chancellor’s Office which has now been disbanded. The issue of international recruitment is a top priority for Page.

“International students bring diversity to a university. They enhance the educational experience and they bring a new perspective, and on the business side of things, increasing enrollment with international students brings in full tuition which will help benefit the system,” said Markson.

Page asked that former President of The University of Maine at Farmington (UMF) Theodora Kalikow step in as new president of USM.  Kalikow agreed in July and was approved by a vote by the Board of Trustees shortly after.

Kalikow is well-known for her success for 18 years as president at UMF.  Just prior to her appointment as new president of USM, she retired from UMF at the age of 71, and graciously agreed to postpone retirement for the difficult position as head of USM.

With her trademark frankness, Kalikow addressed 690 faculty and staff at the annual opening breakfast on August 31st.

Why did I come? Why am I not enjoying retirement paddling my kayak this morning instead of standing on this stage?

The simple answer is, I came to help get USM back on the right path. Many of you have been here a long time and you love USM. That’s the good USM you love, the part that centers around transforming students’ lives and serving our communities. This is the USM that everyone in Maine wants to succeed. That’s why the Chancellor asked me to do this. It’s why I am with you this morning.

And then there’s the bad USM. That’s the part we are going to stop being, with each other’s help. The bad USM is the one we create by our bureaucratic nuttiness, and by not treating our colleagues with consideration, and by not putting students at the center of what we do. That’s the USM we are going to stop being.

Kalikow appears to be nothing but confident , speaking to faculty and staff with an ease and gentle authority.

“So, operating principles to help enable the good USM:

-Don’t be stupid!

-Clean the cage. Remember, “The dove descends when the cage is clean” – Robert Shaw, Robert Shaw Chorale in Atlanta.  So we’re going to clean the cage, throw out those dirty newspapers on the bottom, and get on with it.

-Operate well – you will be able to help here, as I’ll tell you in a minute.

-Choose a few new things to experiment with. [More on this later.]

-No whining! Of course we don’t have any money. Of course there is not going to BE any more money. We have to do our magic with what resources we already have or what we can lay our hands on through our own efforts. And we’re not going to lie around howling and expect Development to do it all, either. That’s magic thinking.”

The mentality at the center of Kalikow’s goals is simple––students first.

“Everyone here is a teacher. Whatever your job is, serving the food or cleaning up or teaching or advising or working in an office or wherever it is, what you do affects the students and teaches them how a high-functioning organization should behave and what it should look like and how it should treat folks. Everyone has a part in this, and everyone here can and does make more connections with students than we even know.”