From Laid-Off Professor to Provost

Why would a faculty member return to the institution that laid her off after 12 years of stellar service, amid broad retrenchment and program cuts? For the U of Southern Maine's new provost, it came down to institutional loyalty and a new president.

July 29, 2016
Jeannine Diddle Uzzi

Along with dozens of her colleagues, Jeannine Diddle Uzzi was unceremoniously cast off the University of Southern Maine’s sinking ship two years ago as it faced a $16 million budget shortfall. The former professor of classics was retrenched and saw her program eliminated as part of academic cuts. So she found a new job and never imagined going back. Until she did.

In an unlikely twist in the modern retrenchment story, Uzzi gave up a promising new career and climbed back on board, at Southern Maine’s request, to become its interim provost. After nearly a year and a national search, she was promoted to the post permanently this summer.

Why go back? Uzzi asked herself the same question -- many times.

“It was definitely trying and not without some anxiety,” she said. “I took a gamble on myself and the university, which was trying to turn itself around. It had been through some serious struggles.”

“Struggles” is putting it mildly. Staring down a major budget gap due to diminished enrollment and other factors, the university in 2014 announced that it was terminating the appointments of 50 of its approximately 300 full-time faculty members, along with 100 staff members, and eliminating several academic programs.

In the end, 26 faculty positions were eliminated and another 25 instructors, under the threat of retrenchment, opted for a voluntary retirement package or took jobs elsewhere.

The university earned itself a spot on the American Association of University Professors’ list of censured institutions for the way it handled the crisis, largely making academic decisions at the executive level and without declaring the true financial exigency that would have permitted the termination of tenured faculty members under widely accepted AAUP policies.

Southern Maine acted in “brazen disregard” of AAUP’s statement on, and its own procedures for, shared governance in eliminating multiple academic programs without consulting the faculty, the association wrote in a report on the matter. “The program closures at [Southern Maine] are not merely matters of bookkeeping; they impinge on matters of curriculum and instruction, for which the faculty should always have primary responsibility. The administration’s ignoring the Faculty Senate, repeatedly and apparently deliberately, is at odds with generally accepted norms of academic governance in American higher education.”

Some onlookers also criticized the university blueprint for the cuts, which realigned Southern Maine as the state’s “metropolitan university.”

But that was 2014. By last fall, when Uzzi returned, the university was on its fourth president in less than two years. Two were embattled with the remaining faculty and one was hired but never made it to campus after he was promoted at his home institution. The fourth time, the university looked inward and hired Glenn Cummings, an assistant professor of educational leadership at Southern Maine and former interim president of the University of Maine at Augusta. He also served as speaker of the Maine House of Representatives and in the Obama administration as deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Vocational and Adult Education.

Cummings didn’t know Uzzi, but he knew of her reputation as a strong academic adviser, former chair of the Faculty Senate and her somewhat unlikely -- as a classicist -- interest in online learning.

In an interview, Cummings said hiring Uzzi had some other advantages. He liked the “optics” of hiring back a retrenched faculty member, sending a signal that no one had been terminated because he or she was a poor scholar or teacher. And Cummings said getting Southern Maine back on track was so urgent that he couldn’t waste two or three years as someone from the outside learned the lay of the land -- political and otherwise.

He called Uzzi and offered her a job as the university’s fifth provost in six years.

Uzzi, always somewhat interested in administrative work, had by then ruled out of the possibility of a lateral move in classics, given the job market nationwide, and found a job as director of faculty programs for the Associated Colleges of the South. She was enjoying the idea of that kind of work, not least the stability of it, and planned to relocate to Atlanta after her children finished school.

But she decided to take the gamble and stay in Maine, mainly out of love for the institution -- however tough a place it can be.

“I’d been so invested in that university for 12 years,” she said. “I loved it and was all about teaching these high-need students. This is a regional comprehensive in a resource-poor state. It’s not an easy place to teach.”

Institutional loyalty aside, Cummings was the hook.

“The thing that really convinced me was the new president -- I was impressed that he’d gone out to community members, students and faculty and taken their advice on who might be able to help him lead the university in a new direction,” Uzzi said. “And when he called me and told me that I could really help him heal the university -- up until then I’d just known of his political career -- he struck me as an ethical person who was genuinely trying to do the right thing.”

Uzzi was eager to start but found herself hampered somewhat by her one-year interim contract. Faculty and staff members were scarred by constant administrative turnover and in many cases reluctant to get too involved in any initiative. The competition in the ongoing national job search was stiff, she said, as applicants seemed to realize that the “hard work” of cutting at Southern Maine was done and the rest of the job would be getting “the ship back on course.”

Still, Uzzi set to work on mending relationships between faculty members and the administration and on a number of specific tasks, such as creating a slate of articulation agreements between the university and local community colleges. Uzzi also worked on creating a set of limited criteria for evaluating the health of academic programs as frequently as every semester, as opposed to just every seven years, as was previously the case.

Like so many other institutions, Southern Maine is also trying to boost its enrollment and retention numbers. Uzzi’s had a hand in that, as well.

“That’s an ethical imperative of schools where most students pay their own way,” Uzzi said of completion efforts. She’s got two new faculty members arriving this fall to help develop enhanced academic support service “safety net” programs in English and math, for example. And she wants to expand a peer tutoring program in chemistry into the other sciences.

Uzzi is also trying to find new ways to get students to fill out evaluations of teaching, but more by carrot than stick.

One challenge for Uzzi has been recognizing and negotiating among the different faculty interest groups on the heavily unionized campus, she said -- distinctions she didn't see as a professor. “The union has particular concerns that are not always the concerns of shared governance or faculty governance. … So supporting the faculty as an entity isn’t as simple as it seems.”

As part of Southern Maine’s restructuring, it eliminated foreign language majors. That’s something Uzzi said she might like to see change going forward, especially under the university’s new designation as a metropolitan center, she said.

This year, with Uzzi’s newfound agency as permanent provost, she’s also looking forward to helping the university heal.

“Morale is improving -- there are pockets that are great, but it’s not complete. The healing is not complete,” she said. “Faculty will still need to talk about this. … But we are definitely moving in the right direction. The budget is back on track and we are projecting no layoffs.”

Despite the tumult, enrollments at Southern Maine are indeed up -- some 25 percent in new undergraduate enrollments for the fall, and 13 percent for new graduate students, according to information from the university.

Both Uzzi and Cummings attribute that progress to a team of colleagues, but Cummings said his own bet on Uzzi has certainly paid off.

“This is the best hiring gamble I’ve ever made,” he said. “She’s very well respected internally, and she is very positive and collaborative -- all the time. At the same time, she can be firm when she needs to be, and she’s incredibly credible when she is firm. Usually no one in the room except her can say, ‘I know what being retrenched means, so I know what it means to be fiscally careful.’”


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