Faculty members question payment to new WBU president who quit

University of Maine system officials announced Sunday that Michael R. Laliberte, the newly appointed president of the University of Maine at Augusta, has stepped down from his post. File Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — The University of Maine system’s recently announced plan to pay Michael R. Laliberte an annual salary of $205,000 for up to three years is drawing outcry from some faculty members and their families, who are reeling from recent layoffs.

Meanwhile, at least one higher education expert says the UMaine system’s three-year payment arrangement with Laliberte, who stepped down on Sunday as the new president of the University of Maine at Augusta, is unusual.

Laliberté was scheduled to start at WBU on August 1.

UMaine system officials announced that Laliberte had stepped down as president of UMA, Maine’s third-largest public university, after it was revealed he had been voted down twice by no-confidence less than a year ago at the State University of New York in Delhi, where he was president, and that information about those votes of no-confidence was not shared with the entire search committee UMA President.

Faculty members at four of the campuses in the UMaine system — UMA, the University of Maine at Farmington, the University of Southern Maine, and the University of Maine at Machias — recently voted no confidence in the failed research and in Dannel P. Malloy, Chancellor of the UMaine System.

Although five of the seven schools in the UMaine system face a collective budget shortfall of nearly $19 million, the system agreed to pay Laliberté $205,000, his contract salary, for the remainder of the year and until three years, if he is unable to find a job.

Victoria Cohen, whose husband, Jonathan Cohen, was fired from UMF in early May, said she was furious that the UMaine system agreed to pay Laliberté up to $615,000 “for not working a single day”, but the UMF cut nine teachers by a process known as retrenchment.

“That $615,000 is a whole bunch of salaries,” Victoria Cohen said. “Why don’t you go out of your way to keep the faculty members?”

jonathan cohen, a professor of philosophy who worked at the UMF for 30 years, was informed by email of his dismissal. He declined to take the retirement package offered as part of the deal because he wanted to continue teaching. Cohen’s job was one of the humanities positions to be cut.

Victoria Cohen, also a professor at UMF, said her husband has received support from colleagues and former students.

“The fact is that nine people have been made redundant – they can use the word fired; they were really fired – and they dedicated themselves,” said Victoria Cohen. “My husband worked there for 30 years, and he is told after 30 years to close the door behind him. Where is the celebration of 30 years of service? And those who are incumbents, they told them to move on, because Laliberté never once set foot on campus.

Margaret Nagle, spokesperson for the UMaine System, said a withdrawal contract for Laliberté was being finalized.

The money to pay Laliberte must come from the reserves of the UMaine system, which total about $10.5 million, according to Nagle.

Faculty members at Monday’s UMaine system board meeting also discussed Laliberte’s withdrawal agreement, with James Cook, a sociology professor at AMU, calling it an “unfortunate cost to getting us out of disaster”.

Ellen Chaffee, a senior researcher and consultant for the Association of Boards of Trustees, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advises higher education administrators and board members, said context is all about the Laliberte’s salary.

“In higher education, the chair market is almost entirely in the spring,” Chaffee said. “You want them to be there before the academic year and finish the other academic year. If you get a president job and don’t follow through, you’re in limbo until you find something for the rest of the year.

Chaffee said while it’s unusual for the UMaine system to pay up to three years of Laliberte’s contract, it’s not unusual for a system to pay out the remainder of a year. She said this was done frequently in higher education and other businesses.

She added that it would not be in the professional interest of a university president to be unemployed for three years.

In a presentation monday to the UMaine System Board of Trustees, Ryan Low, the system’s chief financial officer, explained the fiscal year 2023 budget, saying that every school in the UMaine system, with the exception of UMA and USM, operates with a financial deficit, with part of the system budget not financed by state revenues.

The total budget gap between other public universities in the state – UMF, University of Maine Orono, University of Maine Machias, University of Maine Fort Kent and University of Maine Almost Isle – amounts to 18.8 million dollars.

Low said Monday that UMF had a deficit of $3.1 million, which increased by $2 million during the year due to a drop in enrollment.

To make up the shortfall, Low said the UMaine system used $2 million in federal funding and transferred $3 million from system stabilization funds. Originally, system officials planned to transfer $1.5 million in stabilization funds to UMF.

WBU’s next presidential search is set to launch this fall, and in the meantime, Joseph S. Szakas is to remain acting president, earning $159,028 in base pay as provost, plus an allowance of $27,500 for the acting position.

UMaine system officials said they will no longer use Storbeck Search as the UMA seeks a new president. Storbeck is the Pennsylvania-based company that identified Laliberte for the UMA presidency and his contract with the UMaine system stipulates that the system is entitled to a free search for up to six months, if the candidate withdraws from the contract.

In the meantime, Victoria Cohen said there are “fixes to be made” within the “broken” system at the University of Maine, especially given the faculty’s votes of no confidence in Malloy as the UMaine system administrators are considering renewing his contract.

“At the heart of UMF are faculty, so you do everything you can to protect faculty and programs,” said Victoria Cohen. “Without them, you have no institution.”


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