The University of Maine System is launching a search for the next president of the University of Southern Maine following the acceptance Wednesday of the current president’s request to step down and return to the faculty.

The move comes amid concerns from USM faculty, who have questioned President Glenn Cummings’ decision to step down amid a period of growth and success, and who worry a presidential search could be disruptive to recent progress in enrollment, fundraising and capital projects.

Some faculty said they were denied the ability to speak during the public comment period at Wednesday’s special board of trustees meeting and continue to have concerns about Cummings’ departure and USM’s future.

Lydia Savage, a professor of geography, said Cummings’ decision to step down has fueled speculation by faculty and staff that he and the system have different visions for the future of USM. “That speculation is based on what we see as a more and more tightly centralized control of our campuses,” Savage said.

Savage, who also serves as president of the USM chapter of the Associated Faculties of the Universities of Maine, a faculty union, said she heard from several faculty Wednesday who were unable to speak during the meeting’s public comment period, either because the topic of Cummings’ resignation was deemed a personnel issue or because they missed the sign-up deadline the day before. “They wanted to talk about the future of USM and what a new president means for us and they didn’t get an opportunity,” she said.

While there were no speakers during the public comment period, board Chair Mark Gardner said the board did receive “quite a few” letters that were circulated to the trustees. There was almost no discussion on the proposal to accept Cummings’ request to step down from the presidency and return to a faculty position at the end of June 2022. The proposal was approved unanimously along with a second proposal approving the priorities of the presidential search committee, which will be chaired by Trustee James Erwin.

The decisions come after the USM Faculty Senate passed a resolution last week asking the board to negotiate a multi-year contract with Cummings. The resolution praised Cummings for “placing USM on a path to success that includes $150 million in philanthropic gifts” and achieving seven consecutive balanced budgets while also growing reserves.

The resolution also said that “changing USM’s leadership during significant campus projects and a global pandemic will disrupt, disorient and demoralize not only the USM community but the system as a whole.”

Cummings, who has been president since 2015, has said he is stepping down because he believes the timing is right and it’s what is best for himself and his family.

“I think the staff and faculty know this is a sensitive time in our history, but hopefully I will be able to steward the university through to July 1 and then ideally hand it off to somebody who also will take care of the university in the future,” Cummings said. “We should be able to weather it, although the timing is not ideal.”

Cummings’ departure comes amid the UMaine System’s transition to unified accreditation, a reform that would increase opportunities for sharing more academic programs and resources between campuses. However, the shift also has raised concerns about campuses losing their individual identities.

“There are differences in every large organization,” Cummings said in response to a question about whether he has a different vision for the USM campus than the system. “There is no question I support very strongly unified accreditation. I also think the faculty has every right to ask the chancellor about his intentions with USM.”

Neither Gardner nor Chancellor Dannel Malloy was available for an interview after Wednesday’s meeting. Dan Demeritt, a spokesman for the UMaine System, said the system has sought to respect Cummings’ request to return to the faculty. “The board needs to, and the chancellor needs to, respect those requests when someone thinks it’s time for them to move on,” Demeritt said. “He certainly ends on a very high note.”

DENIED CHANCE TO COMMENT

Demeritt said seven people reached out to comment to the board on Wednesday but were denied either because they sought to speak on personnel matters, which are confidential, or because they submitted their requests after the deadline.

Paul Johnson, a professor of social work, said he was among those who sought to speak but his request was deemed a “personnel issue.” When he attempted to register with a different topic Tuesday, he was told he had missed the 12 p.m. deadline. Johnson said he was disappointed to see the board move forward with the search for a new president and that faculty are concerned about who will replace Cummings.

“You get a new president and that person appoints the provost so you have a new provost and then deans will step down and we’ll have new deans,” Johnson said. “We’re going to go backwards.”

Rep. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, also was among those who sought to speak but said she was informed she had tried to sign up too late. “I am concerned we’re losing someone who has been a really effective leader for the University of Southern Maine,” Millett said. “There’s been quite a bit of progress that has happened under his leadership, including developing a strong relationship with faculty. … There seems to be improved morale and great student data. With everything moving forward so positively, I was concerned about his abrupt departure.”

Millett said she also brought her concerns up with Malloy at a legislative session this week in which she asked for more information about unified accreditation. She said she wants to learn more about what kinds of changes it involves for the university system, especially given Cummings’ departure on the heels of the resignation of University of Maine at Augusta President Rebecca Wyke over the summer.

“I wonder how much unified accreditation is related to that, or maybe it isn’t,” Millett said. “We don’t really know because we haven’t received a lot of information about that and what it means for the campuses.”

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