When you ask people to describe Dannel Malloy – the new chancellor of the University of Maine System and the former two-term governor of Connecticut – the words “decisive” and “action-oriented” come up often.
They might have added “fearless,” for Malloy seems not to back away from challenges and controversy, but to embrace them.
It started early in life, when Malloy was diagnosed with severe dyslexia, which left him unable to take written exams in school. He eventually gained reading proficiency, but writing still posed great difficulties. Yet he graduated from high school and, despite SAT scores he described as “abysmal,” earned a degree from Boston College and then was admitted as a special student at Boston College Law School.
In an interview at his office in Orono, Malloy said the law program was a “life-changing experience” – his first taste of real academic success. And he’s never forgotten that many students are told they aren’t “college material” and lose out on similar chances. It also influenced his decision, after his political career ended in 2018, to seek a role in public education.
His law school experience led to another experiment, as Malloy became the first candidate to pass a state bar exam orally, rather than with written essays. As the four-term mayor of Stamford, and then as governor, he rarely read from speech texts, instead relying on an extraordinarily retentive memory.
James Erwin, chairman of the UMS board of trustees and head of the search committee that selected Malloy, said there was much discussion last year of what kind of chancellor was needed, following the retirement of James Page, the chief executive of James W. Sewall Co. in Old Town, who served seven years.
“We had some very good traditional candidates,” Erwin said. “Academic leaders who started as teachers and worked their way up.” But the committee wanted to broaden the search, he said, and “the question was, how non-traditional were we willing to go.”
Of those candidates, “Malloy stood out as someone who had success in the public sector in leading change.”
Alhough the UMS board is his first state government service, Erwin himself is no stranger to politics. His father, James S. Erwin, was state attorney general and a three-time Republican candidate for governor who won the nomination twice.
Erwin said Malloy’s political career in Connecticut was the subject of much discussion. “It was not without controversy, but that didn’t deter us,” he said. “If you’re avoiding controversy, you’re probably not pushing hard enough.”
Six months later, Erwin said, Malloy is “the transformational leader the system needs. He’s exactly what we’d hoped he would be.”
Another observer of the political scene, Maine Turnpike Authority Executive Director Peter Mills – former state senator, candidate for governor and brother of Gov. Janet Mills – said Erwin and Malloy are well-matched.
Erwin became trustees chairman near the end of Page’s tenure, and, Mills said, “a lot of things were being studied, but there wasn’t much action taking place.” Erwin, whose second and final term expires in 2022, “wanted to get some things done, and he found someone who could do them.”
Malloy arrived in Maine as the ninth chancellor of the 52-year-old university system, a sometimes troubled arrangement that had never quite answered the question of whether the original seven universities were autonomous, with the system office providing only administrative support, or whether the 30,000-student system, with its numerous branches and centers, would function as one entity.
As Malloy sees it, “People were allowed to attach their own meaning to that ambiguity.”
Now, he’s proposing integration. His plan to create “unified accreditation” for all campuses will be voted on by trustees at their Jan. 26-27 meeting. Up to now, all seven have been accredited separately by the New England Commission of Higher Education.
Unified accreditation was one of two major initiatives on the table when Malloy arrived last July; the other establishes independence and more staff for the University of Maine School of Law. Both are moving at a brisk pace.
Malloy read the studies, consulted with administrators, faculty and staff, and decided it was time to move forward. “This has been talked about, in one form or another, since 1968” – the year the system began operating, he said.
James Clymer, state president of the Associated Faculties of the Universities of Maine, is among them. He said, “It seems too fast,” adding that many faculty members are “very concerned” about possible unintended consequences.
Clymer also said one of the goals of proponents – to increase collaboration among departments on different campuses – is already allowed under a recently signed two-year collective bargaining agreement, which provided 3 percent annual salary increases.
“We don’t need unified accreditation to do this,” Clymer said.
David Flanagan, who as interim University of Southern Maine president in 2015 presided over wrenching budget cuts, thinks differently. In a state “with more deaths than births,” Flanagan said, unified accreditation can help “minimize the pain and maximize the benefits.”
For Erwin, the needs are clear.
For small campuses with declining enrollment, including Farmington, Presque Isle and Fort Kent, “instead of standing on their own, they can use the strength of the whole system to deliver what’s best for their own market, their own students,” he said.
He pointed out that Presque Isle and Fort Kent have four shared administrators – which troubles accreditors because it’s hard to determine if staffing requirements are being met. The smallest campus, Machias, has already merged administratively with the University of Maine.
Malloy said the details of system accreditation may take about two years, but the “cultural aspect” of widely separated campuses working together may take longer. Erwin said single accreditation “takes away any kind of legal obstacle to them doing so.”
An equally pressing issue is funding the system’s $200 million appropriation.
Gov. Mills requested two annual 3 percent increments, but the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee funded only the first year, and budgeted nothing for the second. Mill’s request would have provided the first real increase in years.
Former Gov. John Baldacci flat-funded the university during the crisis years of 2009-2010, and former Gov. Paul LePage continued flat funding for six more years, with a 3 percent boost over his final two years.
Lawmakers found other uses for the money. Mills asked that municipal revenue sharing, cut by LePage from 5 percent to 2 percent, be restored to 3 percent over two years; lawmakers boosted it to 3.5 percent. University funding often faces tough sledding when pitted against other priorities, although it’s rare that a Legislature led by the same party as the governor would administer cuts.
Now, it’s up to Malloy to convince lawmakers to restore the governor’s proposal – a necessity he said, to match contracted salary increases. Peter Mills said “It’s not going to give the university everything it needs, but may keep it from falling back again,” and Erwin said it’s essential.
During the recent dry spell, UMS fell more than $30 million behind what was needed just to match inflation. Thirty years ago, the state appropriation covered 70 percent of student costs, with tuition just 30 percent. Today, those proportions are reversed.
Across the country, public university systems are struggling with reduced funding and a declining student demographic, Malloy said: “It’s not just Maine.”
Tight budgets have led to a lack of capital investment that’s resulted in aging infrastructure on all campuses. UMS is trying to reverse that trend, with new buildings planned and the first student housing offered for the Augusta and Portland campuses.
The new chancellor doesn’t expect to change attitudes overnight.
“It ‘s our job to make the case, to show how more students, many of them non-traditional, can benefit from higher education, and then benefit the whole state through the use of their talents,” Malloy said.
A statewide labor shortage helps make the case.
“The jobs are there,” Malloy said. “It’s everyone’s best interest to allow young people to stay. (A lot depends) on not just getting by, on making sure they’re properly supported. I see it as a statewide obligation.”
Douglas Rooks has covered Maine issues for 35 years as a reporter, editorial writer, columnist and former editor of Maine Times.
It’s about policy, not popularity
In news accounts of Dannel Malloy’s tenure as Connecticut’s governor, he’s almost invariably referred to as having the “lowest approval ratings” of any governor – and that he proposed “controversial” reforms.
In 2010, Malloy won one of the closest governor’s races in Connecticut history, by 6,500 votes over a popular Republican, Thomas Foley, former ambassador to Ireland. Four years later, in a rematch, Malloy increased his majority, slightly – to 28,000 votes.
Malloy makes it clear popularity wasn’t important to him. “I disagreed on policy with some of the people who helped elect me, and that carries a price,” he said. As he sees it, he was elected to get things done, period.
In 2012, after the fatal shootings of 20 second-graders and six adults at the Sandy Hook School in Newtown, he proposed and won passage of some of the nation’s toughest gun laws; Congress took no action.
He also took on some of the most powerful Democratic lobbies in the state by insisting on revisions to teacher tenure rules, and on providing central governance for university campuses and community colleges.
Connecticut then required school districts to offer “continuing contracts,” after just two years. After a bruising legislative battle over his plan to require five years, Malloy won a compromise, and said, “change is hard, but we’ve achieved change.”
For higher education, Malloy’s legislation established a board of regents, with a president and chief executive, overseeing 12 community colleges, four university campuses and an alternative college.
Asked whether Maine has a similar need – there are separate boards of trustees for the university system, community colleges and Maine Maritime Academy – Malloy said it doesn’t.
“In Connecticut, there was essentially no overall governance. Each school had its own administration,” he said. “In Maine, the systems are well-governed” – and he sees no need for change.
— Douglas Rooks
Law school hopes for better days under Malloy
Maine has had several public law schools during its 200-year existence.
The first, in Bangor, enrolled its first students in 1897 and shut down in wartime, in 1919, after its dean was dismissed for alleged pro-German sympathies.
The Portland University law school began after World War II, and the present University of Maine School of Law in Portland was founded in 1962. Two decades later, it became part of the University of Southern Maine through the merger of the Gorham and Portland campuses.
Amid budget cuts in 2015, the law school lost several full time-faculty members, and recently lost its dean, who left for a position paying twice as much. Evaluators raised concerns that, with current staffing, the school might lose accreditation.
When Dannel Malloy became UMS chancellor in July, he had a report on his desk, compiled by a prestigious committee, recommending that the law school become independent again, with the dean reporting directly to the chancellor, and that it be allowed to hire new full-time faculty.
Two months later, trustees approved Malloy’s recommendations, and the school will hire three new tenure-track professors – there are now 17 – as well as a permanent dean, with the new hires expected for the next academic year.
Deirdre Smith has taught at the law school since 2004, and leads the Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic, where students are assigned clients and represent them in court, under faculty supervision. She called Malloy’s decisions a breath of fresh air.
“I think there’s a lot of excitement and hope,” Smith said, noting she was also gratified, and said the law school appreciated, that Malloy recently spent a day on campus, meeting with groups and individuals.
Smith now hopes to highlight the school’s mission, which goes beyond teaching students, to serving the court system and the Legislature, as well as providing in-house expertise for the university system.
The faculty additions, she said, will provide “a healthy blend” between full-time and adjunct faculty, the latter mostly active practitioners – several are judges – who collectively form “a legal think tank for the entire state.”
— Douglas Rooks