AUGUSTA — The man who led the University of Maine at Augusta as it expanded baccalaurate education and nearly merged with the University of Southern Maine died on Wednesday.

Charles Lyons, president of York County Community College and former president of UMA, died after battling cancer, according to a statement from Maine Community College System President John Fitzsimmons. Lyons was 68.

“(Lyons) was recognized as an advocate for students and a cheerleader for the importance of higher education in the lives of people in Maine,” Fitzsimmons said in the statement. “Today, a family lost a husband and a father, and the state of Maine lost a great leader.”

Community college system spokeswoman Karen Hamilton said Lyons continued working until recently. Central Maine Community College President Scott Knapp was appointed interim president of YCCC effective Monday.

Knapp will split time between Central Maine and York County colleges in Wells, where he was interim president in 2006 for four months before Lyons was appointed to the job.

Lyons began as interim president of UMA in July 2001and was appointed president in March 2002. He officially left Augusta in 2006, though he spent the last year of his contract on sabbatical.

Lyons graduated from Madison High School and earned a doctorate in education from Boston University. He was a professor and associate dean of education at USM and president of the University of Maine at Fort Kent before being appointed UMA president.

The last portion of his tenure in Augusta was dominated by controversy over then-Chancellor Joseph Westphal’s proposal to merge the school with USM and cease offering associate degrees in Augusta.

Lyons advocated for the merger, which was approved by the University of Maine Sytem Board of Trustees. But faculty members and some legislators objected, saying they did not have enough input into the plan.

UMA’s enrollment dipped while the merger was pending, and the Faculty Senate considered a motion expressing lack of confidence in Lyons’ leadership, ultimately tabling the motion.

The university system’s trustees reversed the decision in 2006, and Westphal resigned soon after.

Josh Nadel, UMA’s former executive vice president and provost, said the controversy was hard on Lyons, who would have lost his job in the merger.

“I think it broke his heart to some degree,” Nadel said. “He didn’t come to UMA to do that. I think a lot of people thought he was the inside plant to get us there, but that was not what Charlie’s goal was. Charlie was truly dedicated to making UMA a strong baccalaureate institution. He was just caught in the middle of that.”

Psychology professor Ken Elliott, the president of the faculty union local chapter, said Lyons was loyal to the university system and the chancellor, putting him in a difficult position at UMA.

“I think in that sense, he did the best he could under very, very difficult circumstances,” Elliott said. “He knew it wasn’t a popular plan, not only at UMA but across the state.”

There are still mixed feelings among the faculty about Lyons, but Elliott said Lyons’ forthrightness made him easy to work with.

“He was sort of a ‘what you see is what you get’ kind of person,” Elliott said. “He put his opinions out on the line, and then let them respond. He was very clear.”

Nadel gave Lyons credit for leading a shift toward four-year degrees that helped UMA remain financially viable as Maine’s growing community colleges siphoned students pursuing two-year degrees.

“I think the most important thing in terms of Augusta and the region that Charlie accomplished was that he was able to truly set the course for UMA to become a regional baccalaureate university,” Nadel said. “He was the one who kind of set that as the goal and came up with strategies to help achieve it.”

The number of credit hours taken by baccalaureate students first surpassed the total hours for associate degree students in fall 2005, just after Lyons began his sabbatical.

Nadel said Lyons also supported the development of cultural programs at UMA, such as the Terry Plunkett Maine Poetry Festival and the construction of the Klahr Center, which houses the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine.

Lyons had a good sense of humor and was easy to work for, Nadel said.

“If you screwed up, he wanted you to ‘fess up, and then we moved on,” he said.

While president at UMA, Lyons also served as the university system’s vice chancellor for University College outreach, placing him in charge of the UMA-based distance education system.

Bonnie Sparks, director of the Hancock County Higher Education Center, said Lyons helped build that center by creating a partnership between the university system and Eastern Maine Community College.

“That center is a model partnership, and it really speaks to what Charlie believed in,” Sparks said. “He believed that people needed access, he believed that the public institutions of higher education in the state of Maine needed to work together to meet their mission and meet people where they were at in their pursuit of higher education.”

Sparks said the partnership at the Ellsworth center is symbolic of the fact that Lyons worked for both the university system and the community college system. Lyons spent 39 years in higher education in Maine.

Sen. Susan Collins and Gov. Paul LePage released statements on Wednesday praising Lyons’ service.

“Charlie was a leader, an advocate for his studnets, and a vital part of his community,” LePage said in his statement. “The example he set as a loving husband, father and devoted teacher is one all should follow.”

Lyons, who lived in Scarborough, had five children and was married to Barbara Lyons, a special education teacher.

 

 

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