If you’re not a sports fan, bear with me for a minute. This isn’t about sports, but sports gives me a good peg.

The men’s basketball team at UMBC — that stands for the University of Maryland—Baltimore County — last month became the first men’s team picked as last in its bracket (seeded 16th, as fans would say) to defeat the team picked as best in the bracket. The Retrievers did it convincingly, 74-54, against the University of Virginia, the favorite not only in the bracket but also the favorite to win the national championship.

(In 1998, Harvard’s women’s basketball team was seeded 16th and beat Stanford, seeded 1st, in the opening round. So, the women did it first.)

What struck me as I read the coverage of the UMBC-UVa. game was that Freeman Hrabowski, the president of UMBC, has been on the job for 26 years. Twenty-six years.

Compare Hrabowski’s time at UMBC to that of presidents of the University of Maine. Susan Hunter is getting done this summer after four years. She replaced Paul Ferguson, who stayed for three years. He replaced Robert Kennedy, six years; who replaced Peter Hoff, seven years; who replaced Fred Hutchinson, five years; who replaced Dale Lick, who was at UMaine when Hrabowski took over UMBC. So, during Hrabowski’s 26 years at UMBC, UMaine has had six presidents.

And now, UMF may be joining the short-timer circle. Kathryn Foster, who has been president for five years, is headed back to the lower 47 to a bigger school in New Jersey. Her replacement will be UMF’s fifth president since Einar Olsen retired in the 1980s.

This happens in other areas, too. In the past 22 years, UMaine has had five athletic directors. Sue Tyler, Patrick Nero, Blake James, Steve Abbot and Karlton Creech. The AD job may seem a wee deal, but survey after survey has shown that sports teams are the face of many colleges and universities, the first thing most people know about the school.

Almost none of these folks stayed around when they got done. Only Abbott and Hunter that I can find. Abbott returned to his job with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, after Orono. Hunter will retire when her time ends this summer. I don’t know if she retires to Maine or the lower 47. The others seemed to find greener pastures across the Kittery Bridge. I will bet that few if any of them came to Maine with the idea that this was her last job.

They came to build resumes. Maine makes a good stepping stone, it seems, for ambitious academics. When you have a reputation as a stepping stone, don’t be surprised when folks step on you. Great for administrators, not so great for Maine.

Here’s why I believe it is important that Maine look for people to head its institutions who may have some commitment to the state, as Abbott and Hunter had.

In Hrabowski’s 26 years, UMBC has gone from being rated a the top 10 “up and coming college” to being rated seventh most innovative and 13th best in undergraduate teaching.

UMBC is known for its Meyerhoff Scholars program, which seeks minority students, especially black men, for its rigorous curriculum in science and technology. A program like the Meyerhoff Scholars could not have been undertaken by a president who was on campus just to step on the stones that lead to a larger or wealthier school. Hrabowski took a while to identify the goal, which was to make technical and scientific education more readily accessible to people whose skin doesn’t blanch out every January.

Then it took more time working with Jane and Robert Meyerhoff to set up the program. And it took his willingness to listen to and compromise with Robert Meyerhoff in designing the program. Meyerhoff, whose skins blanches out every January, wanted especially to encourage African-American men. He said it was time to emphasize for black men that their future was not a binary choice between prison and sports.

Hrabowski bought into that idea, and the Meyerhoffs got out their checkbook. Today, there are more than 1,300 Meyerhoff scholars. About 260 of them are on campus now. About 1,100 have graduated, and 320 of them are in graduate school.

Meyerhoff Scholars happened only because the president was committed to it.

Compare the Meyerhoff plan to a long-range plan at UMaine. The Blue Sky Plan was launched in 2012 under Paul Ferguson, during his second year. It was a deep and wide plan to refocus Maine’s top university. It was to last until 2017. It outlasted Ferguson, who crossed the Kittery Bridge for good in 2014, three years after crossing it northbound.

It might not be fair to say the Blue Sky Plan turned gray without Ferguson. If you read the executive summary — it’s 16 pages and it was written by academics, so beware — you will find a lot of high-minded words but not much concrete.

But why would one expect that Hunter, even though she was a bit of a UMaine lifer, having taught at Orono for 23 years before becoming president, might spend a lot of time and energy on the blue skying of her predecessor? One wouldn’t. Who wants her record to read, “I carried out another guy’s dream.” And why would the other guy dream large when he knew in his heart of hearts that he might not be around to fulfill it?

Would that we had Hrabowski’s stick-to-itiveness in Maine. I hope that the people who become the next presidents of UMaine and of UMF decide to stick around a little longer. To develop long term strategies for which they are willing to hang around and oversee.

Given Maine’s recent history, though, I’m not holding my breath.

Bob Neal taught at UMaine for three years and at UMF part time for five years. He bleeds Black Bear blue, with a healthy stream of Beaver maroon blended in.

Bob Neal

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