PORTLAND — Harvey Kesselman has been selected as the next president of the University of Southern Maine, the University of Maine System announced Wednesday.
Kesselman will come to the university after 35 years working for the similarly sized Stockton College – now Stockton University – of New Jersey, where he held a wide range of faculty and administrative positions, most recently provost and executive vice president of the school.
“The experience Harvey brings to the table, especially considering the very narrow margins here, is key to helping USM shine,” said UMaine System Chancellor James Page, whose choice of Kesselman has been endorsed by the executive committee of the board of trustees.
At USM, Kesselman will seek to stabilize a university that is welcoming its fourth president since 2012 and has suffered from regular high-stakes battles between faculty and administrators.
Most recently, school professors and administrators have argued loudly and publicly over the fall eliminations of 51 faculty jobs and five academic programs – moves current interim President David Flanagan has argued are necessary to overcome a $16 million budget shortfall, but which professors have said may have been avoided with more faculty input.
Kesselman said during an interview Tuesday that he has maintained positive relations with faculty senate and union leaders at Stockton, where the collective bargaining and shared governance models are similar to those at USM.
Kesselman has also spent much of his tenure at Stockton on the school’s faculty, teaching education courses in concert with administrative jobs.
“I’ve been involved in shared governance my entire career, which is really the issue here (at USM),” he said. “I don’t know any other way to do business.”
Kesselman said that while he knows not every decision he’ll make will please the school’s faculty, he prioritizes inclusiveness and open communication.
“We don’t blindside each other and we don’t have our disputes in the middle of the newspaper,” Kesselman said.
With the system expected to dip into its reserves yet again to balance the budget despite cost-cutting measures and the promise of increased funding from the state, USM’s ongoing financial struggles are likely to continue past Kesselman’s July 1 start date, meaning the new president may have tough budgeting decisions to make in his first year.
Kesselman said he can’t comment on the state of the university’s finances yet, but said better student retention will cure many of the school’s ills.
“I have not looked at the books at that level,” he said. “We have some very talented people at the state working very hard to help stabilize USM financially.
“This I can say: If we could retain even 400 more students, our fiscal problems would start to be mitigated,” Kesselman continued. “USM is too great a place to have 65 percent retention rates after three semesters.”
The new president will arrive as USM begins its pursuit of a so-called “metropolitan university” vision in earnest. The strategy aims to make integration with businesses and community organizations – as well as the resultant hands-on, experiential learning – a central focus of the school’s curricula.
Flanagan and other supporters of the new direction say it will be crucial in attracting and retaining students, as well as driving up fundraising.
Page said Kesselman was chosen in part because of his experience with, and enthusiasm for, the “metropolitan university” model at Stockton University.
That’s not the only similarity between USM and Stockton, however. Kesselman said Stockton has multiple campus-like sites (USM has campuses in Portland, Gorham and Lewiston), fewer than 10,000 students, Division III sports programs and a northeastern climate.
Kesselman agreed to an initial six-year contract to lead the school, and will be paid an annual salary of $235,000. Kesselman’s contract includes a provision allowing Page, with the approval of the trustees, to increase his salary annually.
The chancellor also retains the discretion to reassign Kesselman to a faculty position at two-thirds the annual salary — about $157,000, using the initial salary number — at any point during the six-year term.
The USM presidency attracted approximately 80 applicants. Kesselman was one of two finalists, along with interim University of Maine at Augusta President and former Maine House Speaker Glenn Cummings.