Less than two years after touting the commitment and stability the hiring of James Conneely would bring to the University of Maine at Augusta, the school again is looking for a president.
Conneely, who came to the university in January 2016, unexpectedly resigned Tuesday night, leaving the University of Maine System to find the institution’s fifth president since September 2014.
At the time of his introduction, faculty and staff members spoke about the stability he would bring to the university.
A news release by the University of Maine System did not announce why Conneely was stepping down effective June 30, and his chief of staff, Joyce Blanchard, declined to comment on Conneely’s reason. He began his job over a year ago, after working as a senior consultant for a Massachusetts company.
Blanchard said Conneely has been out of the office for several days recovering from hip replacement surgery and was unavailable to comment.
In a letter to the UMA community announcing his resignation, Conneely did not give a reason, but said he’s appreciated his time on the job and the support he and his wife have received in Maine.
“It has been an honor to lead UMA during the past one and a half years,” Conneely wrote. “I continue to be amazed with the dedication of the faculty and staff to the mission of UMA and the students. UMA is larger than any one individual and I strongly encourage the leadership to continue with the initiatives we have recently instituted to enhance recruitment and retention of our students.”
Several hours after the news of his resignation broke, campus leaders were weighing in on Conneely’s tenure.
Ellen Taylor, an English professor, said in an email that the school’s faculty and students are unique in background and innovation and that UMA needs someone with vision and creativity to harness that energy and talent.
“It’s unfortunate that our recent president was not a good fit for UMA,” Taylor said.
That sentiment was echoed by Student Government Association President Patrick Caskin, who said he didn’t think Conneely understood what UMA was truly about.
Caskin, 21, a senior, said UMA has a nontraditional student population and there was always a general feeling of respect, kindness and transparency that has gone away since Conneely arrived last year.
“There has been a lack of communication and transparency from the higher administration, leaving everyone, including most staff and faculty, in the dark,” he said. “This has caused a reasonable amount of friction and uncomfortableness on campus.”
He said it’s unfortunate that Conneely is leaving so soon into his tenure, but Caskin said it’s what’s best for the university. There is a feeling among the majority of the Student Government General Assembly that former interim president Rebecca Wyke would be the best person to lead the institution permanently.
“During her short time as interim president, (Wyke) showed a sincere interest in the students and tackled several student issues,” Caskin said.
As an example, he said it was Wyke’s hard work that made it possible for UMA students to ride the Kennebec Explorer for free by showing their student ID.
Brad O’Brien, the student government president at the school’s Bangor campus, didn’t mention Wyke by name but said he hopes the chancellor of the University of Maine System, James Page, and the board of trustees show their faith in the institution by appointing a known and trusted individual to renew the faith of the UMA community.
“The students, faculty and staff of UMA, who are spread out all over the state, have kept the purpose of the institution alive and well,” he said by email. “I expect UMA will recover from another transition.”
Conneely came to UMA after having been president of Notre Dame of Maryland University in Baltimore, associate provost and vice president of student affairs at Eastern Kentucky University and assistant vice chancellor of student affairs at the University of Arkansas.
His 31-year career in higher education began at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. From there, he spent time at Villanova University outside Philadelphia and Emory University in Atlanta. He moved to Fayetteville in 1993, where he served as Arkansas’ director of residence life and dining services before taking his position in the student affairs department.
In one of several interviews with the Kennebec Journal last year, Conneely said his vision included a reorganization and rebranding of the school, including a new logo. The logo and new “Declare your future” tagline were rolled out in late October. The outgoing president said he was immediately impressed with the dedication of the faculty and staff and said they “really believed in what they were doing and want to help the students be successful.”
“I think their hearts are in the right place, and I see it every day,” he said last May. “I don’t think people really realize the quality of UMA, because we really do provide a quality education.”
Roger Mackbach, a senior and campus leader, said it was important for Conneely to listen to the student body as a whole instead of just a select few.
“Fortunately, the faculty, staff and administration is committed to providing a premier education to students,” he said. “Though this might be viewed as tumultuous, it is an opportunity for UMA to grow and find a committed and dedicated president to bring UMA to the next level.”
In the coming days, Page will be meeting with people at UMA to make plans for the leadership transition. The system will have a transition plan ready when Conneely leaves his post, according to the news release.
“We appreciate President Conneely’s service to Maine as a member of this team and wish him well in his professional pursuits,” Page said in the news release.
UMA’s top leadership position has gone through several changes since September 2014, when Allyson Handley left the university after six years at the helm to take a job in California. Glenn Cummings, former president and executive director of Good Will-Hinckley and the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, took over as interim president at UMA after that; and in June 2015 he was appointed president of the University of Southern Maine. Wyke, the University of Maine System’s chief financial officer, took over as interim president after Cummings left.
When Conneely began the job in January 2016, he signed a contract that ran through June 30, 2018. He makes $192,000 annually and will not be paid for the remaining year on his contract, according to University of Maine System spokesman Dan Demeritt.
Jason Pafundi — 621-5663