University of Southern Maine officials knew there were concerns about a former school superintendent’s handling of racism complaints when they offered her a tenure-track faculty position this spring, according to an internal investigation that concluded the hiring process followed proper procedures.

Katie Hawes left the Kennebunk school district after a tumultuous year to take a faculty position at the University of Southern Maine. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

However, the investigation into the hiring of Katie Hawes, the former superintendent in Regional School Unit 21, will result in changes to the hiring process that will require candidates for permanent faculty positions to submit diversity statements.

Hawes was hired with the unanimous support of a search committee made up of faculty members and their choice was approved by the dean of the College of Management and Human Service, according to the review by Jeannine Uzzi, provost and vice president for academic affairs.

“The search committee and dean were aware of the situation at RSU 21, the Maine Human Rights Commission complaint and ongoing work at the district,” Uzzi wrote in a letter to the community she was planning to send out Wednesday night. “They addressed the situation with the candidate and considered it carefully. The search committee and dean were unanimous in their support of the candidate.”

Hawes, who was named to a $60,000-per-year tenure-track position in the educational leadership department last spring, was superintendent of RSU 21 as the district covering Arundel, Kennebunk and Kennebunkport dealt with fallout from a former teacher’s complaint alleging retaliation for reporting racist incidents at Kennebunk High School.

Last month, RSU 21 settled the complaint by agreeing to pay the teacher, Rosa Slack, $50,000 and amend her job evaluation reports.

Many members of the community expressed unhappiness over the district’s handling of the situation at a meeting in February, during which the school board voted to launch its own investigation and conduct an equity audit of school policies.

The situation led to some people questioning USM’s decision to hire Hawes to teach educational leadership and questions as to whether the university knew the extent of the problems in RSU 21.

“I am pleased that the provost found that I was fully vetted in the hiring process at USM,” Hawes said in an email Wednesday night. “It was a rigorous selection process and I am honored to have been chosen for the position.”

She said she has been teaching part-time in the educational leadership program at USM since 2016, has three graduate degrees from the university and has been active on two advisory boards for both the School of Education and Human Development and the Educational Leadership Graduate School for several years.

Hawes said she has learned a lot over the last six months and is continuing to develop as a leader in the areas of diversity, equity and inclusion.

She said that under her leadership RSU 21 took steps to address racist conduct in schools and improve a climate of diversity and inclusion, including by hiring an outside investigator to review the district’s handling of racist complaints and contracting with two additional groups to provide professional development and other diversity work.

“My leadership on these issues, as well as my overall work performance as a superintendent for RSU 21, is what caused the school board last month to offer me a three-year contract extension and a substantial salary increase in order to entice me to stay,” Hawes said. “I turned them down and accepted the offer from USM because of my connections to USM, my desire to positively impact a larger pool of students, teachers, and administrators in Maine, and to further my career in a higher education setting.”

USM officials involved in the search and hiring process, including Joanne Williams, dean of the College of Management and Human Services, and Anita Stewart McCafferty, the head of the educational leadership department and a member of the search committee, could not be reached for comment Wednesday night.

“People wanted to know if (the search committee) knew and they did,” Uzzi said. “They stand behind their decision. The search committee addressed it with her and they found her to be a strong candidate and the right candidate for the job.”

Hawes was selected from a pool of candidates, but the number of applicants and names of other finalists for the job were not available Wednesday night.

Uzzi said her review of the search process will lead to some changes in faculty searches including more communication between the university’s human resources department and search committees, which are typically made up of faculty members and used in the hiring of other full-time faculty.

A major change to the hiring process will be a new requirement for all applicants for permanent faculty jobs to submit a diversity statement in their application materials explaining their philosophy and approach to diversity.

Uzzi said such statements are not unusual in university hiring processes and USM will be looking at what other schools require as they develop criteria for the diversity statement.

“In the same way we ask faculty to talk about their teaching experience, a diversity statement would be a really strong addition (to our applications),” she said. “It makes our values really clear. We would have something in writing from each candidate and we would know everyone has thought about that.”

In the letter to the community, Uzzi wrote the university is also taking other steps to improve communication around equity and diversity.

The educational leadership department is seeking mentoring opportunities and also has plans to co-sponsor a forum on equity, diversity and school leadership, she said.

A review of the curriculum and administration of the Ph.D program and a fall conference on active bystanding are other items that were already underway in the educational leadership department before the review.

Uzzi said she also is recommitting to the requirement that every faculty and staff member involved in searches participates in training on implicit bias and she will be facilitating curriculum reviews this year with diversity and equity in mind.

A school climate study also is planned at the Muskie School of Public Service and the university will offer a keynote address and series of workshops next April by author Robin DiAngelo on racial and social justice.

“We can be proud that USM is the most diverse institution of higher learning in Maine,” Uzzi wrote in the community letter. “Along with this distinction comes significant challenges and responsibilities. Most important is our collective responsibility to do all we can to create a welcoming and supportive environment for each student.”

Rachel Ohm — 791-6388

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

 

 

 

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