GALLOWAY, N.J. - The roller-coaster ride on which Stockton University has found itself in recent weeks can end well if everyone pulls together, the school's interim leader suggested Wednesday.
After 35 years at Stockton, most recently as provost, Harvey Kesselman's last few weeks there may prove to be his most difficult.
Before he leaves July 1 to become president of the University of Southern Maine, Kesselman has a variety of tasks to undertake - finding an interim president to replace him, updating the university's governance structure, and either salvaging a deal to convert the former Showboat casino into a campus in Atlantic City or selling the property.
He became acting president after the school's embattled president, Herman J. Saatkamp Jr., announced Tuesday that he would be going immediately on medical leave rather than waiting to leave his job later in the year.
"A lot of things can happen in eight weeks, as we've just seen," Kesselman said Wednesday after a farewell event celebrating his career years as a Stockton administrator.
Eight weeks ago, Stockton was celebrating its purchase of the Showboat, a move lauded for its potential to expand enrollment and programs, and to diversify the ailing economy of Atlantic City.
Since then, there have been multiple setbacks. Owners of the Trump Taj Mahal casino next door to the Showboat have moved to block the conversion, forcing Stockton to make arrangements to possibly sell the property to Florida developer Glenn Straub; Saatkamp abruptly announced his resignation, effective after Aug. 31; the faculty passed a "no confidence" vote in Saatkamp; and the president announced his sudden departure.
A lot can indeed happen in eight weeks.
On Wednesday, however, Kesselman struck bright notes.
"Look at the crowd today, the faculty and the staff that are here today. There is no way we won't be able to come up with the right conclusions if we all work together to make that happen," Kesselman told reporters. "If we spend time politicizing this, or we spend time doing anything that would negatively attract that, then we're not working in the best interest of students, and that's what we should be all about. Always."
He added: "You know, when you always focus on what you're supposed to be doing, we'll be fine as it goes forward. And I believe that will happen."
Kesselman said he was establishing three task forces.
The first will have a straightforward job: Find an interim president, though Saatkamp technically remains at the helm pending his formal departure. Stockton will eventually have to find a permanent replacement.
A second committee will focus on "shared governance" - an issue that came to the fore as faculty accused the leadership of a lack of transparency, and complained that they were not involved in major decisions.
"Shared governance in 2015 is a very different thing, and part of what we all need to do - a lot of institutions of higher education - is to define it. We don't have the luxury of time," Kesselman said.
The third committee will work on "Atlantic City initiatives."
Stockton officials said there was no way the Showboat property could be converted into a campus for classes this fall, and Saatkamp had said repeatedly that the university could not afford to hold the building empty.
Straub has agreed to buy the property, though Stockton has a 90-day escape clause in case it resolves things.
The task forces will have representation from the board of trustees, administration, faculty, staff, and students, Kesselman said.
"Listen, I think anything can be resolved when good people get together and try to resolve something. It can take a lot less than eight weeks," Kesselman said.
"Every person that I have talked with is trying to resolve it, OK? And I believe the intentions are good. I really do. I really do."
Whether or not an "island campus" goes up at the Showboat, Kesselman said, Stockton remains committed to Atlantic City, noting its current presence there with its Carnegie Center, Dante Hall Theater, and Noyes Arts Garage.
Kesselman pointed to two decorative prints given to him Wednesday showing the former Mayflower Hotel on the Boardwalk, where the first Stockton classes were held in 1971.
"Right there. Right there. That's where we were founded, that's the Boardwalk, Tennessee Avenue," he said.
"I was in the first class there . . . and that's where we were founded, on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City. And you know, if we wind up on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City as one of our sites, that's not such a bad thing, is it?" Kesselman said. "How many institutions can say that?"
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