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UMFK president discusses recent changes

FORT KENT, Maine — University of Maine at Fort Kent President John Short met with faculty and staff on Wednesday to discuss several changes taking place at the university and reassure participants of the institution’s viability.

“Higher education is constantly changing,” Short told about 50 in attendance. “Change is inevitable.”

Short, however, said he wanted to assure people that despite the changes, the future of UMFK is solid.

“UMFK is not going away; UMFK is here to stay and make a difference in the lives of the people of this area,” he said. “How we do it will change, and with change comes anxiety.”  

Audience members are attentive during a University of Maine System board of trustees meeting at the University of Maine at Fort Kent on Monday, May 21. (Jessica Potila | SJVT/FhF)

To bolster his message, Short pointed out that the University of Maine System has requested a $75 million bond from the Maine Legislature through LD 836, $3.75 million of which would be used to build a new admissions and welcome center at UMFK, next to Old Model School building.

“As the gateway to both the campus and Fort Kent, the new facility would advance recruitment and development efforts for this model rural university, increase student success and strengthen its connection to the community,” according to the UMS website.

This summer, work will begin on the UMFK Fox Auditorium, according to Short, to update the sprinkler system and add a new ceiling.

He described the auditorium as “such an important community venue,” which provides a meeting place for gubernatorial town hall meetings, plays, community events and public school activities, such as spelling bees.

In addressing staff and faculty changes, Short said Dr. Steven D. Gammon, vice-president for academic affairs since 2016, recently resigned to accept another position elsewhere.

He said that Dr. Erin Soucy, UMFK director of nursing, will step in to help assist in that office, until an interim replacement for Gammon is found. Short said he hopes to have information regarding three suitable interim candidates by next Wednesday, and to fill the position “as soon as possible” for at least one year while officials seek a permanent replacement for Gammon.

Several faculty members, whom Short declined to name at this time, also are leaving the university, he said.

“When faculty leave, we are sorry to see them go, but the positions are not going away; we are not downsizing,” Short said.  

The search also is on for a new athletic director after Bill Ashby, who also served as men’s soccer coach, stepped down in April to accept  a new position at Unity College.

Short said that 31 people have applied for the position as of Wednesday’s meeting.

The UMFK president also discussed concerns that he said several international students raised on May 21 during a University of Maine System board of trustees meeting held at the Fort Kent campus.

Central to those concerns, was that the current director of student life and engagement was leaving her post. Many international students turned to that individual to help them navigate their way through college life in a new country, they said.

Short said he met with the students that very day to address their concerns.

“I’m committed to all students,” Short said. “Immigration is a complex issue and the students said they need to know who to go to.”

Short explained that the person who worked closely with the international students had to leave because of a change in her visa status and that the university was searching for a Director of Student Life & Engagement who also would function as the international student advisor.

He added that international students are a vital part of the campus and the community and that UMFK would continue building on its “tradition of accepting and celebrating our cultural diversity.”

No members of the faculty or staff in attendance expressed any concerns or offered any comments about the staff changes or the campus mission.

Before the trustees meeting earlier in May, however, retired professor Roger Paradis protested at the entrance to campus on Pleasant Street by holding a sign that read: “Institutional Rape/Racism.”

Paradis said at the time that he was disappointed in the UMS decision to have UMFK collaborate with the University of Maine at Presque Isle, particularly in regards to UMFK’s nursing and teaching programs. Paradis indicated his fear that the moves were just part of a longer range plan to shrink the UMFK campus, merge it with UMPI or possibly even close it, at the expense of the mostly Acadian population in the St. John Valley.

In response to the allegations, and basically echoing what Short told faculty and staff on June 6, UMS Chancellor James Page told Fiddlehead Focus in an email in May that administrators had “made no decision and taken no action to remove or transfer programs away from any System university that has the resources and demand to provide them on its own …”

He added, however, that “scarce fiscal resources, coupled with faculty transitions that cannot always be planned in advance, require that our universities consider partnering in the future to offer programs when they lack resources they may have previously had to offer the programs on their own.”

Page said the University of Maine System expected UMFK and UMPI would build a strong partnership to address any challenges while expanding access to university services in the region with available resources.

“The University of Maine at Fort Kent,” he concluded, “remains an important leader in our work to serve Maine as One University, providing Maine students and communities with access to critical programs such as nursing, forestry, public safety, and information security and, through its partnership with UMPI, education programming.”

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