Stockton president Saatkamp resigns amid Showboat dispute

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In this Thursday, March 6, 2003, file photograph, Herman J. Saatkamp Jr. addresses a crowd after he was named president of Stockton University. (AP Photo/Mary Godleski, file)

Herman J. Saatkamp Jr., president of Stockton University since 2003, will step down this year, the school announced Wednesday, as it struggles to salvage its proposed Atlantic City Boardwalk campus.

His departure comes amid internal criticism of the university's governance and a lack of transparency. Voting by faculty and staff concludes Thursday in a referendum on Saatkamp's leadership.

Saatkamp's resignation letter to the board of trustees, dated Tuesday, cites "past and present health considerations and the demands I expect of myself from the office."

The resignation will become effective sometime after Aug. 31.

"On behalf of the board of trustees, we accept his resignation and we respect his decision," board chairman Dean C. Pappas said in a statement. "President Saatkamp has earned the right to return to his scholarship, as well as enjoy time with his wife, Dot, and family, and we respect that.

"At the same time, we will be losing his visionary and transformational leadership, and we will miss that."

In the letter, Saatkamp referred to the university's high-profile plan to convert the former Showboat casino hotel into an "island campus."

"I agreed to remain as president this past year in large part to build the island campus in Atlantic City and to complete the Stockton Aviation Research and Technology Park (SARTP) agreements," he wrote.

The island campus plans have begun to unravel, with Saatkamp announcing last month that the owners of the Trump Taj Mahal casino next door had threatened legal action to prevent the property conversion.

Still, Saatkamp wrote, "I remain optimistic for the success of the island campus in spite of the challenges currently faced."

Saatkamp attempted multiple times to build a campus in Atlantic City.

In December, Stockton purchased Showboat for $18 million, touting it as a game-changer for the city and university, based in nearby Galloway Township. The purchase was widely praised as an important anchor for diversifying the economy of the embattled resort, where four casinos closed last year.

But last month, Saatkamp announced that Trump Entertainment Resorts, owner of the Taj Mahal, was threatening to enforce a 1988 covenant that restricted the use of the Showboat property to a first-class casino-hotel.

With Saatkamp saying he still hoped to resolve matters, school officials hurried to make backup plans. If the site could not be opened in the fall - as a campus for students and a hotel for the public - the university could not afford the security and maintenance costs of holding it empty for a year.

Faculty members said they were stunned by the sudden announcement of the Showboat purchase and then the Trump legal threat, with some feeling excluded from the university's decision-making process.

"Many of them are distressed with the ways in which the purchase in Atlantic City and subsequent events didn't mesh with our vision of what shared governance is and should be, and that there were many decisions made that we felt were problematic," said Rodger L. Jackson, president of the Faculty Senate. "And so, all of that comes together to say that this [resignation] is probably the best decision for the faculty."

Under Saatkamp's leadership, the school changed from Richard Stockton College of New Jersey to Stockton University, added buildings and expanded its physical footprint, and increased enrollment and the number of faculty.

"All of the faculty appreciate the many things he's done, the many good services he's given to the institution, his many accomplishments," Jackson said.

Yet frustration over transparency and governance led to meetings of the faculty bodies and the university's union, which includes faculty and staff. When the employees came together, common complaints arose, including learning of major announcements through the media.

On Wednesday, news websites reported Saatkamp's resignation before trustees notified faculty.

"There's obviously a whole slew of things surrounding the island campus that were problematic," Jackson said. "But more and more, I think faculty were starting to articulate that they think this was becoming emblematic."

"If you're going to make a fundamental sea change in terms of the size and scope of your institution . . . you need to lay the groundwork with faculty and staff," he said.

On Tuesday, faculty and staff began voting on two referenda, Jackson and others said. One asks for faculty representation on the board of trustees, and the other, Jackson said, is on "representation of our views on the president's leadership."

Voting ends at 4 p.m. Thursday; it was unclear Wednesday how Saatkamp's resignation announcement would affect the process or results.

Saatkamp announced this month that Stockton would sell the Showboat property to Florida developer Glenn Straub for $26 million if it could not overcome Trump's legal challenge. The price would cover Stockton's purchase, maintenance, and other costs.

"Turning away from an opportunity that could make a major difference in the revitalization of Atlantic City and for Stockton University makes the presidency less worthwhile to me, and fortunately I am in a position where leaving the presidency and continuing my scholarship are worthwhile," Saatkamp wrote.

Saatkamp is a philosophy professor, with expertise in the work of George Santayana.

Before joining Stockton, Saatkamp was dean of the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts. He also had been a department head at Texas A&M University and a dean at the University of Tampa.

Several faculty members said they supported or at least accepted Saatkamp's resignation as appropriate, though they expressed sadness at how things had played out.

Over 12 years as president, Saatkamp saw a dramatic expansion of the school, including the creation of schools, graduate degrees, civic engagement programs, and dual-degree programs with other universities.

"Things like the Campus Center that he's built have been wonderful additions to Stockton's campus. . . . I admire the transition from more or less a commuter school to a place where really it's a community," said Emily Van Duyne, a writing professor.

"Stockton is a really wonderful place to work and a really wonderful place to go to school, so above and beyond I have been distressed to see the community go through this at all," she said.

In his letter, Saatkamp, whose current salary is $310,000, notes the "flexibility of timing" in not setting a date of resignation beyond "a mutually agreed upon date after Aug. 31, 2015." That will give Stockton time to find a next president or choose an interim president, he wrote.


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Inquirer staff writer Amy S. Rosenberg contributed to this article.