Gov. Dannel P. Malloy speaks to reporters at the state Capitol in Hartford on March 26, 2018.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy speaks to reporters at the state Capitol in Hartford on March 26, 2018. Credit: Christine Stuart / CTNewsJunkie
TERRY COWGILL
TERRY COWGILL

Those of us who know former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy are aware that he can be prickly and unpredictable. Confronted with this reality and his low approval ratings as he was running for re-election in 2014, Malloy once told former WNPR host John Dankosky: “I think people have a judgment to make. You don’t have to love me. I’m a porcupine. That’s okay.”

If a leopard can’t change his spots, surely a porcupine can’t shed its barbed quills. So it is that Malloy’s detractors – and even some of his erstwhile supporters – should scarcely be surprised that he rubbed some people the wrong way in his new gig as chancellor of the University of Maine system.

Faculty at two of the system’s universities have passed resolutions of no-confidence in Malloy, while students at a third staged a 24-hour sit-in. These actions, which amount to a tsunami of bad news for Malloy, all happened within the span of three days this month but have been brewing almost from the start of Malloy’s tenure. The reasons for his troubles might seem rather simple but, as with all things Malloy, the reality is complicated.

Nearly 90 percent of the Faculty Senate at the University of Southern Maine voted in favor of the resolution, “citing the departure of three UMaine System presidents in less than a year and a lack of faculty input in important decisions,” according to the Portland Press Herald. Via email, Malloy dismissed the concerns of the faculty as the result of “anxiety” about the transition to a new leader.

“The email he sent to faculty is insulting and labels our concerns as a result of anxiety,” said one professor, adding that Malloy’s email made it sound as though the faculty were “frightened children.”

Three days earlier, University of Maine at Farmington students convened a 24-hour sit-in to protest budget cuts, especially the elimination of nine social studies and humanities faculty positions.

But perhaps Malloy’s biggest problem lies at the University of Maine at Augusta, where the faculty also passed a resolution of no-confidence. That nugget of censure was primarily motivated by concerns with the school’s presidential search process, which resulted in the hiring of a controversial candidate who — unbeknownst to the committee that recommended his hiring — had received a vote of no confidence from the faculty at his previous institution, the State University of New York at Delhi. 

Worse yet, as Malloy acknowledged in a statement in early May, he had known of the candidate’s problems since February and did not inform the search committee because “the SUNY Delhi faculty allegations leading to the no-confidence vote were not substantiated and should not be given serious consideration in the search.” Malloy apologized for the oversight and vowed to improve but the damage was done.

Let’s acknowledge here and now that the protestations of tenured professors should be taken with a grain of salt. They and their unions tend to be thin-skinned and their loud protestations are often performative exercises designed to show the administration they aren’t easily intimidated. Still, as Malloy acknowledged in his statement, “Any faculty senate’s vote of no confidence in a sitting president is a serious matter.” 

Malloy’s missteps prompted the Press Herald, the largest newspaper in the state, to publish a sharply critical editorial headlined, “UMaine System chancellor losing trust following errors at UMA, UMF.” Of Malloy’s blunders, the editorial board concluded: “The errors at UMA and UMF are separate, but they are related. In both cases, the faculty and students were made to feel as if they didn’t matter – as if they were just numbers on a spreadsheet.”

Malloy’s fate is said to be on the agenda for the next meeting of the University of Maine system’s trustees. Malloy’s first three-year contract expires on June 30:

Another source of anxiety among university employees was Malloy’s move, shortly after he took office in 2019, toward consolidation of the Maine system’s operations, including unified accreditation. That action, the Press Herald reports, “transfers certain governance and oversight powers from the individual schools to the system.”

This should not have come as a surprise to anyone in Maine who has been paying attention or did any research into Malloy’s governorship in our state. In 2011, Malloy moved to consolidate Connecticut’s 12 community colleges and their four regional state universities, with a board of regents to oversee all of them. UConn, which is often derisively called the “fourth branch of state government,” was exempted from the consolidation. A word to Mainers with a stake in higher education: expect more consolidation efforts if Malloy weathers this storm and remains chancellor.

Furthermore, while governor, Malloy seemed to take a perverse delight in making educators feel uncomfortable. In his 2012 budget address, Malloy blasted the idea of tenure for public school teachers and suggested it meant nothing in terms of competence: “And to earn that tenure – that job security – in today’s system basically the only thing you have to do is show up for four years. Do that, and tenure is yours.” Needless to say, Connecticut’s teachers – an important Democratic constituency – were insulted, so Malloy spent the next year and half atoning for his sins.

Mainers should know that armchair psychologists in Connecticut have attributed his antipathy toward the education establishment to a difficult childhood in which the learning-disabled Malloy was told by teachers that he was “retarded” and would not amount to anything.

When Malloy left the Capitol for the last time in 2018, I compared him to Rodney Dangerfield — the politician “who don’t get no respect.” I’ve always had a grudging respect for the man, having interviewed him in the Capitol twice with my colleagues Christine Stuart and Susan Bigelow. But his poor social filters often get him in trouble.

Most of the coverage in the Maine media has repeatedly cast Malloy as a difficult personality and often repeats that he was at various times the least popular governor in the nation

In a news analysis documenting how “Furor followed Malloy from Connecticut to Maine,” a Press Herald reporter observed that, “He has a reputation of being bristly and confrontational and often said popularity and effectiveness were not compatible.”

There is a grain of truth to that statement. But if a leader becomes too unpopular, it becomes a distraction that makes it difficult to accomplish anything. I thought The Porcupine had learned that lesson after he left his office at the Capitol for the last time, but evidently, I was naive. Brace yourself for more of the same, Mainers.

Terry Cowgill

Terry Cowgill

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at PolitiConn and is the retired managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at tcowgill90@wesleyan.edu.

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