Among many at the University of Arizona, Meredith Hay isn’t the most liked higher education administrator.
One of three finalists for the University of Maine System’s chancellor position, Hay served as provost at Arizona’s flagship institution from 2008 to 2011, drawing faculty ire most evident in a 2009 survey showing 57 percent of those polled had no support for her management of a massive reorganization plan resulting from state budget cuts.
It didn’t end there. Comments appended called Hay an “acerbic” and “rude” communicator who lacks adequate communication skills, respect for faculty and transparency in decision making.
A former dean removed from his position during her tenure goes further, saying Hay, who left her provost position in August 2011 for an advisory position to the chair of the Arizona Board of Regents, caused the university irreparable harm.
“Her leadership style and communication style is very problematic,” said Juan Garcia, now a history professor at UA who served as vice president for instruction working under Hay, until he was notified by the university’s president his contract was not to be renewed after he challenged Hay for making “unilateral” decisions when she took an academic initiative from his office’s control in 2009.
Hay, though noting errors in communication, downplays the survey result, noting slightly more than 31 percent of faculty voted. She said the faculty who responded to the survey were likely those most affected by the change she oversaw.
In 2008, UA was in crisis and set in motion the UA Transformation Plan, which aimed to trim $19 million from the university’s budget in the wake of $77 million in state budget cuts in 2008, according to an article in the Arizona Daily Star.
According to Hay’s October letter to the University of Maine System’s search committee, between fiscal years 2008 and 2012, the three universities the Arizona Board of Regents govern lost nearly 45 percent of their state appropriations, adding up to nearly $180 million cut.
To trim much of the budget during Hay’s tenure at UA, “differential cuts” — or cuts that vary by the presumed efficacy of the department — were used.
The Daily Star reported that President Robert Shelton told UA’s faculty senate in 2009 that a program’s ability to generate revenue was the most important criterion for , followed by the program’s overall impact on the state’s economic growth.
In the fall 2009 semester, colleges and vice presidential units, equivalent to the UMaine Division of Student Affairs, were handed budget cuts of 0, 2, 5 or 7 percent, according to Lo Que Pasa, a news website produced by UA’s Office of University Communications.
“It’s very difficult when your budget cut is a different percentage than somebody else’s,” said Wanda Howell, chair of UA’s faculty senate. “And if the explanation isn’t forthcoming about that and the process used to determine who got what wasn’t really transparent, faculty get very upset.”
Hay, then provost, headed up the plan’s implementation. In a December interview, she described the two-year reorganization process as “bottom-up,” emanating from faculty ideas.
AMarch 2010 memo from Hay outlined the changes: 16 departments were consolidated into eight, 40 departments and units were reorganized into 13 schools, four colleges were rolled into one, and 42 academic programs were either closed or merged.
The handling of the cuts led to rancor among faculty, many of whom expressed concern that sciences saw smaller cuts than liberal arts.
Faculty concern led to something Howell had never seen at UA — a symbolic faculty vote of confidence of the leadership of Hay and Shelton.
In the online poll, in which 31.1 percent of faculty participated, 483 of 846 respondents said they had no confidence in the way Hay carried out the plan, although the notion of differential cuts was generally supported.
“You have to keep providing resources for the areas that bring in the most revenue and the most fame, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Howell said. “It’s just the way you go about it that is so critical.”
Comments appended to the survey, released in October 2009, were far harsher than the poll numbers. Some claimed Hay was “rude,” “acerbic,” didn’t seek out faculty input and wasn’t transparent with them about her plans for reorganization.
Howell called Hay “impressive” and a leader who moved quickly on solving perceived problems, but one who “could get short” with coworkers if frustrated with a slow work pace.
“I think it comes down to this extremely talented woman who, in terms of relating to others, just couldn’t get out of her own way,” Howell said.
Hay said the pace of change led to some of her actions being misinterpreted among certain groups of faculty, but the survey episode helped her understand the importance of communicating well with faculty, especially in the midst of a budget crisis.
“It’s not about more emails or more memos, it really was about spending more face-to-face time with faculty, small groups, walking through the budget and really talking about how we’re going to get through this together,” Hay said in the December interview. “That really changed the tone and the tenor in the relationship with how we worked through this.”
She apologized to the faculty senate later that October after the poll was released.
“I’ve heard the message loud and clear from the faculty that I must do a better job communicating. I believe that to my core,” Hay told the faculty senate, according to an article in the Daily Star. “I will do a better job. I’ve obviously failed in that regard and I offer you my mea culpa.”
“It was a very good gesture on her part,” Howell said in December. “The question was, of course, on everybody’s mind, ‘Was it too little too late?’ And I think the jury’s still out on that.”
Well-suited to Maine?
Hay spoke excitedly of the opportunity to be considered for one of Maine’s top higher education jobs.
“I got pretty excited about the commitment of the trustees and the state of Maine to really look at how higher education needs to fundamentally shift and reorganize in order to be sustainable,” Hay said.
She said the University of Maine System’s New Challenges, New Directions initiative, outlined in 2009 as the system faced a four-year, $42.8 million deficit, is a good blueprint for success, but more can be done.
“I think Maine really has an extraordinary opportunity to invest in and invigorate its research capacity, especially the flagship university,” Hay said. “I don’t think it has yet seen its full capacity reached.”
She said the chancellor’s first job should be to get out into Maine communities, selling citizens and state officials on the importance of higher education, which she expects to be a hands-on effort.
“You can’t just do that by sitting in a system office,” she said.
Howell said a Chancellor Hay could be better than a Provost Hay because of the position’s wider focus and more limited interaction with large groups of people.
“I think she would be more suited to a job like chancellor than she would provost because the chancellor doesn’t deal with the day-to-day interactions with the masses,” Howell said. “Maybe she’d be the fit for that type of job.”
However, Garcia isn’t convinced Hay, who had a vice president-level job at the University of Iowa before moving to UA, where she served as provost and a professor of physiology, has the experience to be a chancellor.
“If people look closely at what she’s done, she’s never been a department head. She’s never been a vice president of any kind,” he said. “She really hasn’t worked her way up the ladder. That’s why she has no appreciation for what’s involved in running a university from the grassroots level.”