Last week, we considered the case of the embattled chancellor of the University of Maine System, Dannel Malloy, and some of his achievements over the past three years — how he might be different than his “rock the boat” predecessors, two in particular.

Michael Orenduff tried to implement a “distance learning” initiative involving all seven campuses, headquartered in Augusta, that was at the very least decades ahead of its time; he departed in 1995.

Joseph Westphal pushed a consolidation plan that would have merged the University of Augusta into the University of Southern Maine, and consolidated the four smallest campuses in Farmington, Machias, Presque Isle and Fort Kent. Counting Orono, this would have left just three presidents, in essence destroying the seven-campus system; Westphal resigned in 2006.

By contrast, Malloy’s two major initiatives — unified accreditation and independence for the law school —have prospects of working out well.

Yet Malloy may not survive beyond the one-year probationary contract he’s now serving. He made one grievous error, in the UMA president search, and compounded it through a dismal public response when students began protesting faculty layoffs in Farmington.

Students had occupied the administration building and called for Malloy’s resignation before the chancellor’s office even put out a press release.

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When it did, the dimensions of the problems became clearer. Farmington has lost 27% of its enrollment over the past decade, and hasn’t balanced its budget the entire time. Reductions finally had to be made.

It’s the same at four other campuses. Machias has lost 43% of its enrollment, but the situation is also grim at Fort Kent, Augusta – and USM, which lost 22%; one would have thought it easier to attract students in the Portland area.

One obvious problem in Portland-Gorham is the lack of student housing, finally being rectified. Farmington and the other campuses are also getting new buildings, which should help, longer term.

Yet it’s not bleak everywhere. The flagship University of Maine, in Orono, recorded a healthy 9.2% increase, against the system’s overall decline of 11%. Without Orono’s positive numbers things would have been much worse; it now has about half the system’s enrollment.

Malloy admitted, when interviewed, that the public doesn’t understand these difficulties, which have been managed without new layoffs, except at Farmington. Yet he’s also in a bit of a bind.

One doesn’t convince the Legislature to provide more money — and, considering the giant surplus, lawmakers have not been generous — when one’s institution faces a shrinking future.

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Yet facts are facts, and without improved public investment, it will be hard to turn things around. Orono’s successes may help point the way.

The University of Maine has long had impressive research programs, in natural resources and climate science, that are now paying off. The offshore wind project now developing in the Gulf of Maine, based on UM research and engineering know-how, could provide at least a small version of the payoffs created by North Carolina’s “research triangle” and Boston’s Route 128 “technology corridor,” which got its start at MIT.

Notably, while faculty at the other campuses were organizing no-confidence motions, those in Orono were conspicuously silent.

What’s needed now is for all the system’s employees to stop complaining about vanished programs and help figure out how to replicate what Orono has managed to do; here, cross-campus envy, long a problem, can be a real hindrance.

Public battling between Portland and Orono went on for years, with the result that neither gained. The relative peace that’s pertained recently has undoubtedly helped, but it’s clear USM needs to be re-envisioned.

That’s essential, in part, because it’s nearly co-located with the Southern Maine Community College campus. SMCC is that system’s largest campus, and can offer free tuition the next two years, thanks to Gov. Janet Mills’s budget.

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The remaining question is whether Chancellor Malloy is the right choice to lead this transition. Though firing the chancellor would have satisfied last spring’s outcry, no successor would have any easier time.

Having been through the storm, Malloy may have become, well, battle-hardened.

Yet trust, once forfeited, is hard to regain. All those calling for his head will not be mollified just by an invitation to chat.

So this will be a new test for a far-sighted but sometimes impatient chancellor. Can he, with the assistance of a now highly involved board of trustees, make enough headway to allow completion the five-year strategic plan agreed to earlier, and partially implemented?

In the collective interest of Maine’s public higher education community, and the state, we ought to hope that he can.

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, commentator and reporter since 1984, is the author of three books. His first, “Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible,” is now out in paperback. He welcomes comment at: [email protected]


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