Let’s start out by recognizing the obvious: The leadership of the University of Maine System has just triggered an avoidable disaster.

In a violation of explicit ethical principles for the process, University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy and a UMS trustee chose to withhold damning information regarding a University of Maine at Augusta presidential candidate from members of the search committee, then took to the media with a series of inconsistent statements that further muddied the waters.

Instead of moving forward with renewed vigor to serve students, the staff and faculty at UMA will be forced to spend months and perhaps years to undo the damage that has rained upon us from above. The decision to pay the ultimately-rejected candidate as much as $600,000 to not do any work for the system is hardly a victory, but the unfortunate cost to extricate ourselves from a disaster.

The question is, how do we resolve the conditions that caused this tragic outcome — and the other multiple tragic outcomes our universities have recently suffered?

It may seem obvious based on this description of events that the problem is Chancellor Malloy’s flawed choices, that Chancellor Malloy is a bad leader, and that replacing Chancellor Malloy with a new system leader will fix the problem. Sometimes, however, what seems obvious turns out to be anything but.

In my work as a sociologist at the University of Maine at Augusta, I do not look for explanations of events that lie in the inherent goodness or badness of individual people. Instead, in my research, teaching, and service I study complex systems and ask: What structural features of social systems lead to the outcomes we observe?


For an answer, I look to two other systems facing disaster: the airline industry, which a generation ago suffered a wave of plane crashes, and the surgical profession, which a generation ago faced an onslaught of complaints and lawsuits due to errors in the operating room. An individual approach would say that planes crash because of bad pilots, or that errors in the operating room happen because of bad surgeons. In his books Normal Accidents and The Next Catastrophe, sociologist Charles Perrow flipped our individual focus on such disasters, instead warning us to focus on the characteristics of a system that lead to disasters.

In his research, Perrow came to the conclusion that centralization of authority and power might lead to short-term efficiency and speed in decision-making, but also created a vulnerability. When a few people, or one person, are in charge, survival hinges on the perfection of that one person or those few people. No surgeon, no pilot, no chancellor is perfect; humans inevitably make mistakes. I make mistakes all the time. The key to avoiding tragic disaster is to distribute power and authority broadly, introducing checks and balances, so that no one person’s inevitable mistakes will crash an entire system.

That’s why a nurse now checks your name five times and circles the right spot on your body with a sharpie before you are rolled into the operating room. That’s why modern cockpits are now built with management systems so that when pilots inevitably flip the wrong switch, backup systems come into play and correct the error.

But tragically, leadership in the University of Maine System no longer has such checks and balances. Instead, over the last decade power and authority for the smallest decisions in the UMS has been increasingly centralized, handed over to a single chancellor and a small group of trustees who are expected to perform perfectly every time. That’s not fair to system leadership, it’s not fair to faculty and staff, and ultimately it’s not fair to the students and people of Maine we serve.

When faculty from across Maine recently brought these problems to the Board of Trustees’ attention, a trustee admonished us to understand how difficult it was to be in power and have the ultimate responsibility of making a huge number of difficult decisions in order to properly steer a complex university system. But that’s exactly what we do understand, and in calling for structural reform to Maine’s university system we’re only trying to relieve that pressure.

My ultimate message to Chancellor Malloy and the Board of Trustees is simple: I don’t think you’re bad people. Faculty and staff of the seven independent public universities of Maine are not your enemies seeking to undermine you. In voicing concerns, we are your allies, eagerly seeking to serve the people of Maine.

We only ask you to enable us to help you. Our strength and potential does not lie in uniformity, but in embracing a diversity of voices. Rather than further centralize power and authority in response to crisis, it is time to distribute power and authority in order to avoid future disasters.

James Cook is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Maine at Augusta. This column reflects his own individual expression as a sociologist and does not necessarily reflect the position of the University of Maine at Augusta or the University of Maine System.

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