October 01, 2022


The tenure of University of Maine System Chancellor Joseph Westphal should have been instructive to the state. Now that system trustees have decided not to extend the chancellor’s contract and to seek a replacement, they should look hard at their own expectations for the next leader of Maine’s university system and harder still at the public expectation.

Whatever the progress under Chancellor Westphal, the first lesson for Maine from this experience is that the state doesn’t do well with bulldozers. With his policies, the chancellor has been something of a bulldozer, eager to push an agenda that would make the system stronger even if it meant pushing it onto an unwilling Legislature and faculty.

That style may be effective in some circumstances, but this is a state that finds it acceptable to mull tax reform for decades. What happens here, happens incrementally. Task forces are involved; stakeholders plant their stakes; policymakers confer and delay.

The next chancellor doesn’t need to accept that pace, but must consider it. The current chancellor’s attempts are helpful here: In his first year, he devised an ambitious plan to hold down tuition increases and repair campuses by making the system a spending priority in Augusta. After years of annual increases of about 2 or 3 percent, he proposed 13 and 17 percent in FY 2004 and ’05 and he was gently denied.

Next, he proposed remaking the university system and was partly turned away. Then it was a $400 million bond, which was turned down. This year, when he proposed a $300 million bond after losing a bond worth $9 million at the polls, the Legislature simply dismissed it.

The chancellor’s intentions were good and his perspective that the system deserved the investment was certainly correct. He lost clout, however, because the groundwork for these big requests hadn’t been done, and that was a real cost – the inability for a crucial part of this state to contribute more. Nevertheless, his service was marked by stronger links with the Community College System, restructuring in the face of difficult budget constraints and a system office move to downtown Bangor, among other accomplishments.

In a recent opinion column, political science Professor Michael S. Hamilton referred to Mr. Westphal as “the largely invisible chancellor.” That may be less a comment on his work than an observation about how he fit within the Maine system. The next chancellor should have experience outside of Maine, bring new ideas here and show success achieved elsewhere and live easily here.

After a year’s sabbatical, Mr. Westphal will spend three years as a system professor teaching political science at two-thirds his previous salary, or $133,000 a year. The position of system professor was created in 1985 and sets as a requirement a minimum of seven years of service as a chancellor or university president, a standard waived by trustees for Mr. Westphal and the previous chancellor, Terry MacTaggart, a system professor along with former UMaine President Peter Hoff.

It would be difficult to top this as a means to build resentment among a faculty that has been working without a contract since last fall. The next chancellor should at least get seven years in before being offered this opportunity. And let’s hope he or she lasts that long.

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