Joseph McDonnell began his tenure as University of Maine at Farmington’s interim president in July. He said he accepted the position to help UMF through his background in higher education, business and crisis management. Kay Neufeld/Franklin Journal

FARMINGTON — Joseph McDonnell assumed his role as interim president at the University of Maine at Farmington in July.

The beginning of his tenure comes on the heels of immense change and uncertainty at UMF: an ongoing financial deficit, the start of a transition from a four- to three-credit system, the retrenchment of nine faculty positions in the humanities and social sciences, nine more faculty retirements across different departments, closure of three UMF humanities programs (the Women and Gender Studies, Philosophy and Religion, and Modern Languages departments), student protests and the UMF Faculty Senate’s vote of no confidence against University of Maine-System Chancellor Dannel Malloy’s leadership.

McDonnell acquired bachelor’s and master’s degrees in philosophy at Stony Brook University in New York and a doctoral degree in communication and philosophic rhetoric at the University of Southern California. From there, he jumped from careers in higher education at Stony Brook to the private sector at a utility company and on Wall Street.

In 2011, McDonnell began his career in the University of Maine System, serving as the dean of University of Southern Maine’s Professional Schools, the provost of USM and faculty member for USM’s Muskie School of Public Service.

McDonnell said his history handling “a thread of crisis management” through his various leadership roles in business and higher education makes him the right man to take charge amid the uncertainty.

“I arrived here in July to address the challenges of this university,” McDonnell said.


The Franklin Journal sat down with McDonnell on Wednesday to learn more about his background, his interest in higher education and what he envisions for UMF’s future.

What do you feel makes you adept at crisis management?

“I think that the one thing in crisis management that you have to be able to do is step back and diagnose a situation. It’s not just a matter of rushing into the blazing fire; it’s a matter of looking at that blazing fire and then seeing what is the best way to handle this situation.”

Why did you return to a career in higher education?

“I was always interested in higher education. When I finished my doctorate, I was very young and I was really looking for broader experience before I would teach. By serving in these multiple managerial roles,(where) I had the good fortune of always being . . . in the senior management group, that gave me a lot of experience. So at the point at which I had an opportunity to go back, I could share what I knew.

“In some sense, I was getting more of an education over the 20 years that I spent in business to be able to go back and teach with both the knowledge that one gets from pursuing a doctorate degree, but also the practical experience that one gets by being on the front line of different organizations.


“I felt that combination has made me a much more effective teacher.

“And then, of course, I went to teach and then because of all the experience that I had, they wanted me to serve the administration. So I was thrust back into a leadership role.”

What were some of the moments in your career in the UMaine System that stick out to you?

“One was my ability to secure a Confucius Institute for the University of Southern Maine because of my experience in Maine. A Confucius Institute is a relationship between Chinese University and a foreign university, our university (USM).

“The other thing, of course at USM was dealing with its financial challenges. That thrust me right back into a crisis mode where the university had a $16 million shortfall. And that needed to be closed.

“The third thing I would mention was the new programs that I created — a program in tourism and hospitality and a doctoral program in the Muskie School in education leadership, which was a partnership between the Muskie School and the School of Education.”


At USM, you had been provost when 52 faculty positions were eliminated during that aforementioned financial shortfall. What was that experience like for you?

“Of the 52 faculty positions that were eliminated . . . I would say about half of them were done through retirements. And the other half were through either program eliminations or just faculty reductions in certain areas.

“It’s an extraordinarily difficult thing to do. It was a sign that the university did not address these issues earlier on. These problems festered for about a decade before I arrived and they could have been addressed without taking those drastic moves, had they been addressed when they first came. But the tendency, unfortunately, is to kick the can down the road and just hope that things are going to turn around.

“But there was a trend of fewer students going to that university over time and a very similar situation has happened here. If you look over the last 10 or 12 years at this university, the trend was evident that fewer students were coming every year. At any step along the way, the past administration could have frozen faculty hiring, made adjustments to size the university to the reduced size of the student body and adjust the faculty and the staff accordingly.

“In both instances, at USM and here, the staff had been reduced. When the staff is reduced, it’s done without incident . . . there’s probably not even one press story about the staff that has been reduced at this university. But when the faculty reduced, then it’s a big issue.”

Why did you apply for the position here? What drew you to UMF?


“I didn’t apply. I got a call and I was asked if I would serve from the chancellor and board of trustees based on their knowledge of me and my background.”

Why did you accept the position?

“I accepted because I thought I could help. And that I did have the experience to work with the faculty and the staff here to make this university sustainable.”

University of Maine at Farmington interim President Joseph McDonnell looks through a publication on the Farmington State Normal School in his office Wednesday. He began his tenure in July with plans to increase enrollment, strengthen the academic programs and address the university’s ongoing financial issues. Kay Neufeld/Franklin Journal

What do you view as UMF’s areas of strength?

“I would say that (there are) many areas of strength.

“First would be the faculty and staff. It’s an extraordinary faculty, a dedicated staff. Their dedication to teaching, I think, is remarkable.


“This is a faculty that is deeply interested in teaching, in the teaching enterprise . . . You see it in some of the experiential courses that we offer. Every student comes in and has a powerful experiential course. In an era when people are just studying online, these students are just thrust in on a hands-on basis, doing something outside of the classroom. I think that’s a distinguishing feature of this university.

“The other things are just the relationship with the community. This is idyllic to have a campus right into a town. The town and the campus are really one in how they mesh together. And being a gateway to the western mountains is attractive, an extraordinarily beautiful setting.”

What do you see as some of the areas for improvement here?

“Several areas. One, we need to have a closer tie between the academic programs and career development. That can be done through a greater emphasis on internships, mentorships.

“And I think (with) micro-credentials, where students become more aware of what they’re learning. To know that you are learning about leadership, you are learning about critical thinking, about communicating, either in writing or public speaking, about creativity and imagination and global awareness, and data management and financial literacy.

“They’re getting all that in their courses. But we’re not tying that together in a way that students understand that they have achieved this kind of knowledge.


“No matter what your major is, if you speak to employers, they say, ‘look, we want people who have leadership skills and initiative and critical thinking and problem solving, who can work well with others, know how to collaborate.’ These are all things that we teach here, but we need to heighten them so that students can, I think, more clearly see that.

“You have to be explicit as to what they’re learning, it would have to become much more a part of the course . . . if we’re going to be more successful in bringing students to a professional career, these are the things that I know from business.

“I see another challenge as giving students an opportunity to either double major or major and minor. That’s in part a reduction of the number of credits in certain programs that just got too big. But that also allows students to become stronger in an area. It’s all part of the value proposition of coming to a university like this and being able to migrate to a professional career. We have to be more conscious of doing that.

“The other challenge that we have is that we’re going to be moving from four credits to three credits for each course. That will allow all of this to take place, but it will also allow for students to transfer in to this university easier and would allow us to create articulation agreements with community colleges in an easier way to migrate students . . .”

In regard to the micro-credentials, do you feel like that’s an issue with instruction or marketing at UMF?

“We’re not doing it, so no sense marketing it until we do it. With instruction, my bet is that we’re doing it, but we’re not doing it in a systematic way. It’s more of an implicit way. There’s no doubt in my mind that a student that goes through our programs is learning how to do critical thinking. But I want the student to know that ‘I’m not only learning business or history or computer science, but I’m also learning how to think critically.”


What is the systematic way to approach that?

“We would have to develop criteria that if a faculty member wanted to give a micro-credential in that area, the faculty would have to decide among themselves what would have to be covered to be considered a course that would award that credential. You’d have some commonality no matter what the course is. It’s very similar to how we now do general education . . . these would be just creating different areas.”

Can you describe the financial situation at UMF and what your plans to address that financial situation look like at this point?

“Fundamentally, the problems start with enrollment (which) starts also with a decline in high school graduation in Maine.  . . . There are also fewer students who are graduating from high school who are going to college . . . 45% of the Maine high school graduates are not going on to secondary education . . .

“As a result, we are running a financial deficit because we don’t have those students in our classes. We’re also running a deficit because we don’t have those students in our student housing or in our meal plans.

“There are two ways one can handle that. One is to increase the enrollment. The other is to become more efficient. We have to do both.


“The actions that were taken last year to reduce the number of faculty for retirements and retrenchments was kind of on the efficient side and trying to reduce the costs.

“But we also have to look at how we increase the number of students. We need to look at different markets. The 18- to 21-year-old (category) is an important market for us and we have to compete in a better way for that market. We also have to look at other markets. For instance . . . you want to call them adults . . . nontraditional students, older than 18 year olds.

“The other thing we need to look at is out-of-state students . . . And if we get into a post-COVID world there’s opportunities to go international and to start bringing international students.

“The other thing we have to do is expand our graduate programs. We have graduate programs in education but we could also have graduate programs in other areas, like human resources, the combination between our business and psychology program. The other one would be professional writing . . . so much of the new media, whether it is video games, or social media, it all involves writing. I’m not talking about necessarily people who want to write the great novel, I’m talking about people who want to make a profession in writing, journalism is one, publication, there’s a whole variety of superb faculty who can do this.

“Our niche is not getting students to take master’s degrees as a route to get to the PhD program, that would be UMaine. We can offer certificates and master’s programs to help students get into professions.”

Looking at the retrenchments in the humanities and liberal arts, what do you think the future of UMF’s education will look like?


“I think we’ll be strong. It was a very emotional time last semester. And I understand that some students may be disappointed about what took place. I really don’t know all of the rationale of what took place.

“But we still have a very strong faculty, very strong programs and students I think can get a very good education here. Particularly as you look across students in the liberal arts and students in the more professional areas, if we could move across in a better way, I believe our students will be very, very much prepared for success.”

One of the missions in UMF’s recently-published strategic plan was to offer a strong, affordable liberal arts education.

“Absolutely. We do that, we also offer a strong education program for people going into education, a strong psychology program, students going into our counseling program, business and outdoor recreation . . . We have the only program in Maine in actuarial science. The businesses are looking for our people. Before they graduate, they have jobs. We have lots of things going on.”

That’s not to say the other programs aren’t strong. However specifically, do you anticipate there being future cuts to the liberal arts programs here?

“I’m not anticipating cuts to programs. We need to focus on gaining more students. That should be our thrust. We cannot cut ourselves to success.


“We have to become efficient in how we operate and go into new programs, graduate programs, adult programs, get international programs, get out-of-state programs. And attract Maine students. I don’t think we’re well known enough. This is a wonderful opportunity. Our classes are relatively small, experiential. It’s a close-knit campus.

“There’s a lot going for this campus. I think we can compete with anyone in terms of attracting students here.”

What are the ideas to focus on UMF’s marketing and compete in a competitive market?

“The marketing has to be a teamwork between the academic program and our marketing people. Together, they have to sell. It can’t just be the marketing people. The best people to market our program are the people teaching it.”

In terms of staff members having concerns about future cuts, what are you doing to strengthen communication between faculty, staff, students and administration?

“Since I’ve been here, I’ve communicated quite a bit and I’m going to continue to communicate. I don’t think people on this campus should feel vulnerable. We’re into a growth mode, rather than a cutting mode.”


Via email, McDonnell answered one last question after the in-person interview. 

What plans do you have to strengthen the administration’s relationship with faculty, staff and students in the face of the no-confidence votes, the Save Humanities UMF movement, and other concerns regarding UMF’s operation?

“Over the last several weeks, I have met with faculty and staff members to learn about the campus, its challenges and its opportunities. I am taking every opportunity to connect with our faculty and staff and provide the kind of leadership that will make Farmington a stronger and more resilient university for the future.

“My wife, Carla, and I, along with our dog Cider, will be welcoming our first-year and returning students back to campus over the next few days.

“We want to assure them that UMF is a place where they will make lifelong friends and gain the skills and knowledge to pursue successful careers and become engaged citizens.”

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