The new chancellor of the University of Maine System on Thursday pledged to tackle the challenges of the state’s aging workforce, continue work to keep tuition rates low and grow enrollment in an effort to improve Maine’s economy.

Dannel Malloy, a former Democratic governor of Connecticut whose tenure was marked by controversial economic policies and historically low voter approval ratings, was appointed chancellor Thursday in a unanimous vote by the board of trustees.

Malloy, 63, served two terms as governor of Connecticut from 2010 to 2018 and will replace Chancellor James Page, who is retiring seven years after taking over leadership of the university system.

Malloy’s contract is for three years and he will receive an annual salary of $350,000. Page’s salary is $277,500.

“Dan Malloy is an executive leader and public servant committed to taking on complex change initiatives and getting the job done,” said James Erwin, chairman of the board of trustees, in remarks delivered at the University of Maine, in Orono. “As governor he delivered reforms and structural changes to state government that were not always popular, and certainly not expedient, but that advanced the long-term interest of his state and its citizens.”

Malloy inherits a university system that faces demographic challenges and financial pressure from deferred maintenance and tight budgets.

“My time in electoral politics is over, but I am still passionate about providing public service leadership that matters,” Malloy said. “Maine has set a national example for public higher education reform, and I am eager to work with the board, the presidents, faculty, staff and university supporters to build on this progress for Maine’s learners.”

Malloy, who is dyslexic, was born and raised in Stamford, Connecticut. As a child he attended a summer program in Maine for people with physical and learning disabilities that was being run at Hebron Academy.

“I remember that fondly because it was a point in my life that was a big turning point in respect to my (learning disability) issues,” he said Thursday in an interview.

He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in political science and sociology from Boston College and a law degree from Boston College. Malloy said one of his other connections to Maine is that his college roommate was from Waterville and he visited the city several times decades ago.

In 1982, Malloy married his wife, Cathy, who he had met while they were students at Boston College. They have three adult sons, Dannel, Ben and Sam.

He worked as an assistant district attorney in New York City before moving into general practice law in Connecticut, according to his résumé. He also has taught as an adjunct professor at the University of Connecticut and more recently was a visiting professor at Boston College Law School.

Before being elected governor in 2010, Malloy was the mayor of Stamford from 1995 to 2009.

UNPOPULAR POLICIES 

As governor, the Democrat drew criticism for economic policies that included tax increases and a 13 percent cut to the state government’s workforce. His voter approval rating in October 2018 was below 15 percent, according to a Sacred Heart University/ Heart Connecticut Media poll.

Malloy’s tenure also attracted some criticism Thursday in Maine, including from the Maine Republican Party, which said in a tweet, “If only we could find someone with experience ruining America’s richest state to ruin the UMaine system… Oh wait, Malloy is available!”

But the former governor defended his time in office Thursday during an interview, saying the decisions he made “were not always easy or popular, but they got the job done.”

“We set about with the desire to shrink government over a period of time and make it more efficient, and that’s exactly what we did,” Malloy said in an interview.

In addition to a 13 percent reduction in the state’s workforce, much of which he said took place through attrition, Malloy also set out to fully fund state pension and health care obligations that he said previous administrations had neglected.

“I think Connecticut is pretty hard on its governors,” he said. “As of late, the guy after me is suffering the same way. I think it’s just that people say they want change, but they get uncomfortable when you make change. I will also say I didn’t run to be popular. I ran to get things done.”

Wesley Renfro, associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences and associate professor of political science at Quinnipiac University, said in many ways Malloy is a “natural fit” for the job in Maine because of similarities between the state of Connecticut and the University of Maine System.

Both are dealing with demographic challenges including declining or aging populations and, with that, a decline in revenue either in the form of tuition money or tax dollars.

The University of Maine System has a student population of 29,735 and an annual budget of $572 million. It employs 4,815 full-time workers.

“When he was governor, in many ways he acted as the only adult in the room,” Renfro said. “He made proposals that I think were fiscally responsible, but they weren’t popular. He did some things that I think helped put the state on a better fiscal path but involved cuts in services and more taxes. People don’t like those things.”

When Malloy took office in 2011, the state was coming off the tail end of the Great Recession and faced a deficit of more than $6 billion.

“When you’re handed a checkbook where you’re way out of balance, you have to make some tough decisions,” said Mark Ojakian, who was Malloy’s deputy budget director from 2011 to 2012 and later his chief of staff from 2012 through 2015.

“Part of that involved concessions with state employees. Part of it was cuts to state programs to make them more efficient, and a third piece was tax increases. It was a shared sacrifice.”

Renfro, who agreed that hard fiscal decisions were needed, said, however, that Malloy struggled to build consensus and his personality contributed to low approval ratings from voters — a contention he pushed back on.

“He’s prickly,” Renfro said. “He’s sort of temperamentally not suited to the type of work he is going to have to do in Maine or that he had to do in Connecticut. He was very unpopular and had a reputation for being a little bit arrogant.”

In response, Malloy said, “consensus can do really bad things.”

“Connecticut operated on consensus while they drove their unfunded obligations to be the second-worst in all the country; to change that direction, some people might say I was prickly,” the former governor said. “I was fighting for change. I was dedicated to the cause.”

BIG CHALLENGES

As governor, Malloy also served as president of the University of Connecticut board of trustees.

During that time, the university saw a $2.3 billion investment to support development of the state’s bioscience industry and increase enrollment in engineering and STEM fields.

“Like everyone in the tight budget cycle we were in, we did have cuts; but we didn’t receive a cut that was larger than any other department (in state government),” Larry McHugh, who was chairman of the board of trustees at the University of Connecticut from 2007 to 2018, said in an interview Thursday. “He had to put together a budget, but he was very fair to higher education and very fair to the University of Connecticut.”

“He’s an unbelievable advocate and he did a great job,” McHugh added. “No one is more committed to the success of higher education than Dan Malloy, and I’ve said that publicly numerous times.”

Malloy also launched a “Guided Path” initiative to help students transfer credits and transition to jobs and created a board of regents to oversee 17 community colleges and state universities under one leadership umbrella.

Okajian, who is now president of that system, said the board has led to greater collaboration between two- and four-year institutions despite some initial turnover in leadership.

He also spoke highly of Malloy’s ability to listen to his staff and commissioners without micro-managing and praised his leadership after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December 2012.

“He really led our state through that very difficult time,” Okajian said. “He pushed through one of the strictest pieces of gun control legislation in the country and continues to be in touch with the families who lost their children. The state could not have come through that horrible situation without his incredible leadership.”

Malloy said education always has been a part of his career and as chancellor, he hopes to build on the work of the trustees and Page, who was able to freeze tuition for six years while also working to stabilize the system budget.

He said he doesn’t envision needing to make a lot of cuts in the university’s budget, since a lot of that work already has been done.

“There are other challenges that need to be addressed, such as the nursing shortage and an engineering shortage,” Malloy said. “Those are going to be big challenges going forward and we need to turn to our university system as well as our community college system to make sure that workforce is available to bolster the state’s economic prospects.”

In a news release Thursday, Maine Community College System President David Daigler welcomed Malloy to the job and said he wants to keep building relationships between the state’s two-year and four-year institutions.

“I look forward to working with Chancellor Malloy in his new role, building on the collaborative and innovative work between our two systems that has been a hallmark of Chancellor Page’s tenure,” Daigler said.

“Our partnership with the university system is critical for developing new and better ways to enhance the educational and economic health of our state.”

Malloy was selected after a nearly six-months-long search that cost $80,000 and employed the Washington, D.C.-based search firm Academic Search Inc.

The university has declined to release the names of other finalists for the job, citing confidentiality agreements signed with the candidates.

“The Chancellor Search Committee established a large, representative advisory committee to meet with finalists and provide input to the Search Committee while protecting the confidentiality of candidates,” system spokesman Dan Demeritt said in a statement. “In keeping with our commitment to candidates at the start of the process we will not be disclosing the names of finalists.”

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