PORTLAND — Selma Botman, embattled president of the University of Southern Maine for four years, is stepping aside as head of the state’s second-largest university to take on a new role encouraging international students to enroll in Maine’s public colleges and universities.

Botman will retain her $203,000 annual salary as a special assistant to the chancellor to develop the University of Maine System’s international education programs, a new position.

Her likely replacement, Theodora Kalikow — who retired just days ago as head of the University of Maine at Farmington — will also make $203,000, said Chancellor James H. Page, who said the additional salary will be handled largely by not filling some open positions.

Botman barely survived a faculty vote of no confidence this spring and her decision to give nearly $1 million in discretionary raises to staff members over the past four years sparked criticism because the salary hikes came amid faculty wage freezes and USM budget cuts.

Page, who visited USM after the no-confidence vote, said faculty members and the administration agreed that the university needs to change, but he heard strong differences on how that change should be accomplished. He then had conversations with Botman that led to Wednesday’s decision.

“It was in looking at that range of challenges and looking to see how the university can move forward on a wide front to confront all these challenges that these discussions came up,” Page said.

Page said Botman, “in a characteristically selfless move,” asked to be reassigned. Because she didn’t resign and wasn’t fired, that meant her contract — and salary –will be intact until next June, even in a new role, he said.

Botman defended her tenure Thursday afternoon at a press conference shortly after the move was announced.

“I have provided sound fiscal leadership,” she said. “That was a huge accomplishment for USM and I’m very proud of it.”

But several faculty members said Botman also leaves a legacy of a rift between the administration and faculty at USM.

“The working relationship between the president and the faculty had become irretrievably dysfunctional and they couldn’t work together productively,” said Jeannine Uzzi, an associate professor of classics and chair of the Faculty Senate when the no-confidence vote was taken. “She was never able to partner with the faculty in a way that was productive for the institution. The partnership just never worked.”

Ron Schmidt, a political science professor, said the faculty and Botman had different visions for the university. He said Botman seemed to favor a university that was career-focused, like some for-profit schools.

The faculty wanted to model the school after a private college, such as Colby, which would provide a strong liberal arts education.

Beyond that, he said, the faculty also felt like its views were not taken seriously when it came time to develop policies and a direction for USM.

“Last year it got to a point where it became really difficult to engage,” he said. Botman’s governing style meant “a lot of faculty felt like they had devoted a lot of time to working on issues of the university and they weren’t being listened to. There was a sense that you’d do a ton of extra work and it would go nowhere.”

Students, by and large, didn’t know Botman, said student body president T.J. Williams.

But Williams said he enjoyed working with her and credited Botman with “keeping the university above the water instead of under the water.”

He said she cut costs by reducing the number of university colleges in a way that largely didn’t affect students, Williams said, although he acknowledged that Botman was a controversial figure.

Botman sidestepped questions about those controversies, saying she felt like she set a solid course for USM that her successors could follow.

“It’s fiscally sound, it’s student-focused (and) it’s developed its ties to the community,” she said.

Botman, a noted scholar of modern Middle Eastern politics, said Maine has not kept up in attracting international students and most other state university systems already have positions like the one she will assume.

“What we’re doing is catching up,” she said, saying her role will be to build the relationships that bring international students to the University of Maine.

Page said he agreed that Maine has fallen behind in attracting international students.

“One of our major exports right now is our higher education system and we are way behind many of our peers,” he said.

Karl Turner, a member of the university system’s board, said he didn’t feel Botman would be overpaid in her new role, noting that international students pay “full freight plus” in tuition.

“Maine has a foot in the market, if you will, but we really lag,” he said. “I think she (Botman) can bring that to a different level.”

Both Page and faculty members suggested Kalikow would bring a different atmosphere to USM.

“We’re very fortunate to have her step in here,” Page said of Kalikow, who led the university’s Farmington campus for 18 years before her retirement last week.

He said Kalikow, 70, had planned to take a couple of months off before returning to work on issues related to the university system and economic development. The new role means she’ll be on the job next week at USM instead.

Page said he didn’t know if Kalikow was earning a pension or what her salary was while at Farmington.

Uzzi said she thinks faculty members will be happy with the change in the president’s office.

She said colleagues in Farmington raved about Kalikow’s management style and she was envious when comparing it to dealing with Botman.

“She was beloved by her institution and that will go a long way toward the healing that USM needs right now,” Uzzi said of Kalikow. “It would be difficult for the faculty to come back in the fall and feel nothing had changed.”

 

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