For the past year, the news out of the University of Southern Maine has been of woe -- fights between faculty members and administrators over the budget, scores of planned layoffs and an intense effort to merge departments.
This week, Harvey Kesselman, the provost of Stockton University in New Jersey, was hired as Southern Maine’s next president.
What was he thinking?
Kesselman, who starts work in Maine this July, said he has no doubt everyone at Southern Maine is tired of the negative publicity and the battles. So, he said, they’re ready to move on.
“Obviously there are challenges,” he said, “but I also think there are incredible opportunities.”
Kesselman is heading from one unionized public university of over 8,000 students to another unionized public university of over 8,000 students. He comes with what he and his own former faculty describe as a history of decent dealings.
Some of the critics of the current Southern Maine administration were involved in the search and are giving Kesselman a tentative thumbs-up.
Susan Feiner, vice president of the Southern Maine faculty union, said she hopes Kesselman will indeed be able to live up to his reputation. For too long, she said, faculty at Southern Maine have been “bullied and demeaned by an aggressive corporate manager.”
Still, Feiner harbors worry that the University of Maine System office will not let Kesselman do his job unencumbered.
“We are hopeful that with President Kesselman at the helm things will change for the better,” she said in an e-mail. “We continue to be concerned [about] the central administration's tendency to micromanage. If the system won't give the new president room to maneuver, USM will continue to fall apart.”
Kesselman said the presidential search may have helped repair relationships.
“The process itself has helped heal some of the feelings that have been expressed over the last year or so,” Kesselman said.
Michael Frank, a Stockton psychology professor who chaired the Faculty Senate and was also president of the Stockton faculty union, said Kesselman is a “good man.” Kesselman was not president, but he was on the administrative side of collective bargaining negotiations.
“If stuff can be straightened out, I think he will -- he’s the kind of guy that looks for solutions,” Frank said. “I like him.”
Frank said Kesselman, for instance, seems to like employing full-time faculty professors, rather than relying on adjuncts.
"I think he recognizes the importance of full-time faculty meeting directly with students who are there in their offices, and I think that is really important, and I think so does Harvey -- at least he says he thinks it’s important,” Frank said.
Southern Maine has operated with an interim president since August, when it picked former power company C.E.O. David Flanagan for the temporary posting.
It is not yet clear what will become of some of the more controversial moves that administrators at Southern Maine have made, including program consolidations that left some professors worried.
It may be hard to imagine everyone singing “Kumbaya” at Southern Maine anytime soon, but Kesselman said, “What is behind us is behind us.” He sees enrollment as the root problem at Southern Maine. The university, like others in the Northeast, has to cope with a regional decrease in the number of high school graduates.
Few colleges seem to have prepared for this demographic decline and so are now dealing with the consequential drops in enrollment and revenue. Southern Maine seems to be one of them.
“This happened as a cumulative impact of the changing demography that had not been addressed in the past," Kesselman said.
Kesselman has spent most of his professional life at Stockton, which recently changed its name from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. He was part of the college's inaugural class in 1971 and has been in the administration for more than three decades. Kesselman has a reputation as a tough negotiator, according to Frank, the former faculty representative. Tough -- but honest.
“He hasn’t lied to me ever and I’ve known him for over 30 years -- sometimes he doesn’t tell me the truth, but he doesn’t lie, and there’s a difference, as you know,” Frank said.
Frank said even people who disagreed with Kesselman’s decisions knew where he was coming from.
“Harvey and I have gone a couple of rounds and he fights fair -- there’s not much else you can say about an administrator,” he said. “He fights, but he fights fair.”
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