Saturday, July 7, 2012

On Selma Botman Stepping Sideways

It was not my plan to have the post announcing that Selma Botman had left the post of President of the University of Maine be the top post for more than a day.  The thing is, I wasn't able to get much sleep that night (for entirely unrelated reasons) and wasn't really feeling up for writing or research the next day.

On the first point, writing without research, you can hopefully expect posts about pie and Tron: Legacy in the near future, on the second point, research, there's not a lot I can do to look into the Botman situation beyond looking at what's already out there.

I'm not currently in contact with most people who could give me more information, I'm definitely not in a position to get information first hand at the moment, and the person I could most easily contact about it (who also happens to be the one I trust most to have reliable info on it) is the one who was placed under the most stress of all the people I know by it.  I don't want to interrupt what I'm hoping is a low stress well deserved vacation by saying, "You know that thing that overran months of your life and put you under constant stress, could we revisit that for a bit?" *

That means that the only information I have access is what's being reported in the press.  The press that is still getting very basic, easily verifiable, facts of the situation wrong.  (They've had two months and still haven't managed to read the seven words necessary to figure out the difference between needing a two thirds majority of votes actually cast and needing a two thirds majority of eligible voters.)

I'm not interested in making predictions when I don't know what's going on (I will likely never be a pundit), I'm not a tea leaf reader, and even my predictions based on actual facts have a bad record anyway which makes me wary of saying where things will go from here.  There are a few things I wanted to comment on though.


The first is that Botman left the University of Southern Maine in the same way she ran it: by creating a new position that doesn't seem to be needed, the funding of which will require us to leave existing job vacancies unfilled.  There's no word yet, but if the past is any indication those existing jobs left vacant will probably be on the side of faculty rather than administration.

The new position will pay her exactly as much as the old position.  This is not, necessarily, because the new position will pay the same amount in perpetuity but instead because the fact that she didn't resign and wasn't fired but was instead reassigned apparently leaves the salary portion of her contract in place.  (The faculty, last I heard, were still working without contracts.)  It does mean that for the next year she gets paid the same amount while shedding responsibilities.  The new position is a special assistant, when was the last time you heard of a special assistant being held to the same standards as a University President?  When was the last time you heard of a special assistant having their work in a position to be publicly scrutinized to determine if it justified their salary?

The new position is "Special Assistant to the Chancellor for Global Education" in which she will be tasked with encouraging international students to come to the UMaine system.  This makes a certain amount of sense considering her apparent interests.  You may recall that her plan to ignore existing students and future students from similar locations in favor of dumping funds into trying to recruit students from China was one of the few things she seemed to really care about in her job as USM President.  In various other areas she tried to (and in some cases did) hire people into newly invented positions to do her job for her so she wouldn't have to, but shifting the focus from serving students at home to recruiting students with lower standards from abroad was something she really got behind.  It was her big plan, and now she's got a job where that's all she'll be tasked with doing, and she'll be tasked with doing it for the whole system, not just one university in the system.

I'm sure there are limitless ways to interpret this, but two seem to stand out.

One is that this was a face saving gesture on everyone's part and nothing should be read into the details.  In this interpretation the point was to get Selma Botman out of a position she clearly was ill suited for without her losing her salary or having the embarrassment of being booted out and without the system that hired her in the first place having to admit it made a mistake in doing so.**  Everyone saves face, she's out of the job, and the cost of positions remaining vacant is just the price.  This would mean that, privately, those in charge recognized that something was broken and decided to start taking steps to fix it, which would be a good thing.

The other is that this really is, more or less, what it is claimed to be.  The controversy stirred up may have been the catalyst, but what is being done is seriously believed in by those doing it.  Those in charge, like Selma Botman herself, are more interested in hypothetical future students from yet to be determined elsewheres than actual students in the present, and local students in the future.  Those in charge, like Selma Botman, are ready to create new high paying positions (more than a million dollars every five years) at the snap of a finger but not willing to devote funds to actually filling the lower paying positions currently vacant even though an inability to meet demand is costing us quality, students and money.  Those in charge, like Selma Botman, are unwilling to listen to what the faculty says (which in this case is that Selma Botman isn't worth the money.)  Those in charge are ignoring investigating the reasons enrollment is actually dropping and instead putting resources into ways to hypothetically treat they symptoms without first diagnosing the cause.  And So On.

Which is to say, if this isn't to save face but instead things are as we are told they are, it looks like some of former President Botman's serious problems were reflections of problems that her superiors, those in charge of the entire system, themselves have.  And that would be bad.


In one year of her reign if she had done nothing, if the university had been run exactly as it had the year before because there was no leadership so it was being run on inertia, the university would have made half a million dollars.  That's not actually good, it reflects dropping enrollment (the year before the surplus was more than five times that), but it does set a benchmark for comparison when considering the fact that that year the university ended up seven million dollars in debt.

The fallout from that, the resulting demand to cut millions from the academic side to pay for the deficit while quietly handing out a million dollars in raises to the administrative side, provided the backdrop for the eventual confrontation.  That wasn't all of it by any means.  If that had been all she did wrong I probably wouldn't be talking about this now, I certainly wouldn't feel such antipathy toward her and I doubt many other people would either, but at some point things had to boil over and it was in the shadow of that that things did.

That's how she did her job: badly.  If you can honestly say to someone, "If you had phoned in sick for work every day last year we'd have millions more dollars than we actually do because you trying to do your job cost us more than than the average American's lifetime income several times over," that person is probably not doing their job well.  There are exceptions, but they tend to be in things with bigger income streams than the University of Maine System.

Selma should have been let go, not reassigned.

I want to believe that the reassignment was nothing more than a face saving measure for all involved because that would at least imply a recognition of the problems beyond "Crap, there's a controversy," but even that wouldn't be too much of a comfort because, if it is, it comes at the cost of leaving positions vacant which has been and continues to be a major problem.  Given the choice between firing an incompetent person and not hiring multiple necessary people who, if screened properly, should be competent, good management favors the first.


As mentioned in footnote one, one of the people I trust to get things right has been interviewed by the press. Based on the reported direct quotations from that person, it does look like Theodora Kalikow, the person likely to replace Botman, is a good replacement.  We won't know for sure that Kalikow is in until Monday at the earliest but it sounds like the remaining steps are more to make it formal than to make the decision.

I have no personal experience of Kalikow, I cannot speak to what she is like, but it seems that she is someone good and, unlike Botman (see footnote two), that appears to be based not on how she looks on paper but on past work she's done as a University President in the University of Maine System.

So I'm hopeful that whatever problems there may or may not be with system leadership (see almost everything above this section), the University of Southern Maine will at least be well managed.


Lastly, a couple of quotations:

From the Chancellor but the sentiment is attributed to Botman herself, "to move forward on all those fronts a change of leadership might be required."  Botman leaving has been, for a while now, a necessary but not sufficient condition for getting things back on track.  The incoming president will have a mess on her hands thanks to Botman but hopefully things can work out.  The understatement of "might be required" jumped out at me so much that I saw it before I saw to whom the quotation (or the sentiment) was attributed in the preceding text.

From Botman we have, "I provided sound fiscal leadership."  I lack the words to adequately respond.  You know how it is when someone say something that indicates a total lack of self awareness and you're left speechless because it's as if they just claimed the... I don't even know.  "The sky is made out of tapioca," is too reasonable to compare to it.  It's like Ford and Zaphod's inability to describe the slipperiness of the ice covered marble via simile because there is nothing else that compares to the absolute slipperiness of it.***

Selma Botman's leadership was unsound in so many myriad ways, but her fiscal leadership was one of the few places the unsoundness was quantifiable.  If she was able to say that with a straight face, and I'm betting she was, it shows a remarkable capacity for self deception.


Though, as you might imagine, members of the press already have, with the quotations being positive.  Which is good.  But then that adds to things the fact that if I contact zir saying, "Tell me about this," at a time when reporters were doing the same, I feel like I'm pestering.

I wouldn't actually do anything so demanding as actually saying, "Tell me about this," but I'd feel like that's what I was doing regardless of how hard I worked to make sure it was clear that it was a request, not a demand, and it was an, "Only if you don't mind and it's not too much trouble," kind of request.

** It was an easy mistake to make.  I'm told she looked very good on paper and pretty much everyone who took notice (I didn't, at the time) thought she'd do a good job.

One of the reasons that it took so long for things to get to the point they did was that people really thought she would be good, and then thought she would be good eventually, and cut her immense amounts of slack because of that.  They also provided a lot of help to her, often behind the scenes, well beyond what should have been necessary on the expectation that at some point she'd get into the swing of things and be able to take on the full responsibilities of her job any moment now.

Everyone wanted this to work, and so her mismanagement was allowed to go on for much longer without comment than it would have if people had been against her.  There was no one looking for ways to criticize her, instead everyone was looking for reasons to believe.

*** From the second season of the the original radio show of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:

ZAPHOD: This rock… 
FORD: Er, Marble. 
ZAPHOD: Marble, yeah. 
FORD: Ice covered marble. 
ZAPHOD: Yeah! It’s- it’s- it’s- it’s- it’s slippery as er…er, what’s, what’s the slipperiest thing you can think of? 
FORD: This moment? This marble. 
ZAPHOD: Right. This marble is as slippery as this marble.

(It's better when you can hear it.)


  1. Any recent news/thoughts about Botman in the new year?

    1. "Any recent news [...] about Botman in the new year?"

      Not that I've heard, so a Google search could probably give more information than I can.

      What I do know is that the job she's filling, which was argued for on the basis that other universities have people doing similar things, she doesn't seem to be taking seriously.

      The job of trying to recruit foreign students is something that a lot of universities are interested in and thus a lot of them have someone in charge of that effort. In theory that is the job Selma Botman stepped sideways into.

      In reality, not so much.

      The person in charge of the effort to recruit foreign students is someone who generally does their work from home. Not in the sense of from their house, but in the sense of from a local administrative office of some kind. Selma Botman has used the job as an excuse to travel the world. And that was the last I heard of her. After she left the country I stopped paying attention. She could be back by now, I don't know.