BANGOR – A second university system trustee has resigned in protest of legislation that critics say threatens plans to reorganize Maine’s universities and undermines the board’s authority.
Donald McDowell’s letter of resignation, effective immediately, arrived at the governor’s office Wednesday.
“I viewed what the Legislature has done in the last few weeks as a direct intrusion into the governance of the university system,” McDowell told the Bangor Daily News on Wednesday. “I can’t imagine the Legislature feels it still needs trustees if in fact we have the obligation to pass major decisions” by lawmakers.
Wickham Skinner, vice chairman of the board of trustees, also resigned earlier this week.
When the Legislature passed the budget last week, Sen. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, drafted an amendment that stipulates the names and locations of the universities – in essence preventing trustees from changing them without legislative approval.
Martin said the Legislature has always had a big role in higher education. Lawmakers created the university system in 1968, and legislative initiatives have renamed, created and merged campuses over the years.
He also said trustees overstepped their bounds with their strategic reorganization plan, which he said was created in secret without legislative participation.
“From my point of view, I wish they’d resigned two years ago, and then we wouldn’t have had the mess with the secret strategic plan created by them,” he said.
The board of trustees in March 2004 released a plan to reorganize the university system to close a projected $102 million budget gap over the next five years.
Among other things, the plan called for merging the universities in Fort Kent, Machias and Presque Isle into a single school. It also proposed merging the University of Southern Maine and the University of Maine at Augusta.
After objections from faculty, lawmakers and others, the plan to merge the three eastern and northern Maine campuses was scuttled, and the USM-UMA merger plan was delayed by a year.
The new legislation blocks the USM-UMA merger, which now cannot occur without legislative approval.
It also prevents the university system from initiating name changes at any of the campuses without lawmakers’ OK. Board members have said changing the names of the campuses would strengthen their individual identities, while helping market the system as a whole and the state’s flagship campus in Orono.
Sen. Karl Turner, R-Cumberland, called Martin’s amendment “late-inning shenanigans,” offered up late at night without a public hearing. He said it undermines the board and could hamper future efforts to recruit board members.
And he said he’s not surprised that Skinner and McDowell resigned.
Gov. John Baldacci said Wednesday there is a balancing act between the Legislature and the board of trustees. But ultimately, Baldacci told reporters, “the Legislature, and rightly, has control.”
Martin said that Skinner and McDowell’s terms were set to expire in May, and that they couldn’t serve any longer since they already had served two five-year terms.
“So obviously their resignations are a mere protest that serve no purpose,” he said.
Skinner said he would have resigned even if he could have served another five years. “But it would have been a more difficult decision,” he said.
Correction: A shorter version of this article ran on page B2 in the Final edition.