The president of the Maine Community College System is stepping down under pressure after Gov. Paul LePage demanded his ouster.

“I have too much respect for the office of the governor to take his threat as an idle threat,” John Fitzsimmons said Wednesday. “I would prefer to stay and help the system. I also know that if the governor is going to punish the system because of me, that’s wrong.

“And while his decision may be wrong, my decision to stay and hurt the system would also be wrong.”

Fitzsimmons noted that the governor has flat-funded the community colleges in his proposed budget and “threatened further harm if I remain in my post.”

“I am simply not willing to put our colleges at risk,” Fitzsimmons said.

Fitzsimmons, 65, has been president of the system since 1990 and previously was state commissioner of labor under Gov. John McKernan.

LePage first called on Fitzsimmons last Friday to resign, citing two issues: The system pulled out of a favorite LePage project, the Bridge Year Program, after only a year; and the system wasn’t moving fast enough to set up a way to transfer credits between community colleges and other schools, such as the University of Maine.

Fitzsimmons “knows I’m looking to make a change,” LePage told reporters after a budget briefing Friday. “In four years, I’ve asked for things and I’ve got nothing.”

After Wednesday’s announcement, LePage issued a brief statement saying Fitzsimmons had “accomplished great things” during his tenure. He did not refer to his earlier comments criticizing him.

“Today, creativity, innovation and competitiveness must propel an antiquated system into a new era,” LePage said in the statement. “Our students deserve an education that provides them the tools to be successful. It is our job to ensure the educational opportunities are accessible and affordable and lead our youth on a path toward success.”

Current and former trustees have defended Fitzsimmons since the dispute broke out, saying they stood “very strong” behind him. Only the board, whose 13 voting members are appointed by the governor, has the power to remove the system president. The trustees serve four-year terms, and all of the current members were appointed most recently by LePage.

The board accepted Fitzsimmons’ resignation with “deep regret,” Chairman Robert Clark said.

“As hard as this is for the Board to accept, this very difficult decision offers a perfect insight into Dr. Fitzsimmons, who always puts the best interest of students and the colleges first,” Clark said in a statement. Fitzsimmons will remain president until an acting president is named. He will stay on in a fundraising capacity through the summer to complete multimillion-dollar donor requests he initiated through The Foundation for Maine’s Community Colleges.

Clark said he was “shocked” Fitzsimmons decided to resign.

“I think John Fitzsimmons has a great track record and certainly has done a remarkable job,” Clark said.

Clark spoke with LePage on Wednesday, and he said the governor agreed to set up a meeting with the full board to discuss the community college system. The full board’s next meeting is scheduled for Jan. 28, but Clark said they were trying to arrange the meeting with the governor outside the usual board meeting.

“It was a good conversation,” Clark said, adding that the governor wanted to discuss “new, innovative ways of leading the community college” but spoke only in general terms.

The trustees and Fitzsimmons say the system already has been working on the two issues LePage raised. System officials decided several weeks ago to resume participating in the Bridge Year Program, which allows a high school student to earn college credits before graduation, and it expects to have a comprehensive credit transfer agreement by May.

There had been cost concerns with the Bridge Year Program, Fitzsimmons said, since the program would cost about $800,000 a year, with the state only covering half the cost.

Several trustees and Fitzsimmons have wondered whether other issues prompted LePage to call for Fitzsimmons’ ouster.

“My meetings with the governor have never been anything but cordial,” Fitzsimmons said. “I’m not sure I really understand his thinking on some of this, but that’s inconsequential. We have to move on.”

He’s hoping his resignation would help the system.

“(My resignation) will help the system if the governor now changes his position and says the community college deserves more money,” Fitzsimmons said. “What appears to be a toxic situation is now the opportunity for the governor to step up and say, ‘I’ll be glad if my budget gets rearranged and the community college gets more money.’”

Responding to the governor’s criticism, Clark and others note that the system has continued to grow in recent years, particularly with initiatives in line with the governor’s emphasis on job training and educating the state’s young people for high-wage jobs in Maine. The community college system enrolls 18,000 students and has grown 80 percent in the last two decades.

In recent years, the system has expanded and added programs in computer forensics, network security, precision machining, veterinary technology and health information technology. It has also added campuses in Brunswick and Hinckley, and it launched a fundraising foundation five years ago that has raised $26 million in private funding.

“I think it’s a tragedy for the state of Maine, quite honestly,” said Daniel Wathen, a former chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court and the former chairman of the Maine Community College board of trustees. “The community college could suffer if he chose to defy the governor. So I think he did the right thing. I’m just disappointed that it came to that point.”

Wathen disagreed with the governor’s assertion that Fitzsimmons was not an effective manager.

“In my judgment — and I’ve been around state government for over 50 years — John is the most effective and efficient manager I’ve ever seen in state government. I’m truly disappointed.”

Other trustees also were taken off guard by the governor’s demand.

“I’m a huge supporter of John. He’s done a phenomenal job,” said Bob Moore, president and CEO of Dead River Co. and a recently appointed trustee. “It strikes me that there is some kind of misunderstanding along the way.”

Trustee Shawn Moody, who also is a trustee for the University of Maine System, was disappointed with the situation.

“I’m kind of disheartened,” said Moody, president of Moody’s Collision Centers and 2010 independent gubernatorial candidate.

“I’m seriously disappointed to lose John Fitzsimmons,” said trustee Steve Howe, manager of employee relations at Pratt & Whitney, who called the dispute “baffling.” “(Fitzsimmons) showed outstanding leadership. … We will miss him.”

Clark said the board intends to name an interim president within five weeks, then launch a national search for a permanent replacement.

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