Amid turmoil, Stockton's acting president drops plan to leave

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Harvey Kesselman, acting president of Stockton University, at budget hearing. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

With Stockton University's leadership and expansion plans in turmoil, the school said Wednesday that its acting president, who had planned to leave July 1, would stay on in an effort to bring stability.

Harvey Kesselman, who had been slated to become president of the University of Southern Maine, will stay at Stockton, where he will continue to handle the fallout from the university's stymied deal to build an "island campus" at the former Showboat casino in Atlantic City.

"There is no way I would have been comfortable at this point to leave," Kesselman said Wednesday afternoon.

The Showboat property, still owned by Stockton, is in agreement to be sold to Florida developer Glenn Straub, taking it off the university's hands but leaving it without its planned Atlantic City campus.

While it holds the property, Stockton is pouring money into its maintenance and security - to the tune of about $400,000 a month - and trying to resolve a legal challenge from the parent company of the Trump Taj Mahal casino next door.

As the "island campus" dreams teetered earlier this year, faculty members raised concerns about the leadership of Herman J. Saatkamp Jr., the Galloway Township school's president since 2003.

Citing a lack of transparency and calling for greater faculty say in university governance, faculty and staff voted to criticize Saatkamp's leadership and call for a greater role in university decisions.

Saatkamp announced April 22 he would step down, effective sometime after Aug. 31. Six days later, he went on immediate medical leave, and Kesselman, the university's provost, replaced him on an interim basis.

Two days later, on April 30, state lawmakers called Kesselman before a hearing on the Showboat troubles. The university has hired the law firm Gibbons P.C. to investigate how it got itself into its current mess.

In an interview Wednesday, Kesselman said that as he learned more about the Showboat deal and tried to work things out, he realized he could not leave Stockton in its current state.

"It became clear to me that . . . it would put the institution in a vulnerable position with the leadership gap to have both [Saatkamp] and me leaving," Kesselman said.

Stockton is also facing a potential state funding cut next school year, Kesselman noted.

"I don't know how long it's going to take me to work through these issues," he said.

"I did not just want to be half there and thinking about Stockton while I was there," he said.

On Monday, Madeleine C. Deininger, the chair of the Stockton University board of trustees, sent a letter to James Page, the chancellor of the University of Maine System, asking it to release Kesselman from his contract.

'Critically important'

"[T]here are a number of very serious negotiations being conducted at this time between Stockton University and several other entities concerning the Showboat acquisition. The negotiations are confidential, and are critically important to Stockton University," she wrote.

"Simply stated, Dr. Kesselman is the only individual at Stockton who has the authority to conduct the negotiations, and he has the confidence of all entities," she wrote.

Maine acquiesced, and Page announced Wednesday that Glenn Cummings, the interim president of the University of Maine at Augusta and a finalist in the presidential search for Southern Maine, would become its president.

"While we sincerely enjoyed getting to know Dr. Kesselman and looked forward to working together, we respect his decision and admire his devotion to Stockton," Page said in a statement.

Faculty and lawmakers appeared to respond positively to Kesselman's decision to stay.

New Jersey State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D., Gloucester), State Sen. and former Atlantic City Mayor Jim Whelan (D., Atlantic), and State Sen. Christopher J. Connors (R., Ocean) released a joint statement Wednesday lauding the move.

A well-liked figure among faculty and staff, Kesselman has long been affiliated with Stockton. In 1971, he was in the school's first undergraduate class, and he has been an administrator at the school for 35 years.

"Stockton means everything to me," he said Wednesday, echoing comments he had made at a farewell celebration weeks earlier, when he had to stop his speech because he was on the verge of tears.

"This is family. It's more than a job and it's more than a position," said Kesselman, 63. "I'm Stockton. Stockton's part of me."

'Honor and privilege'

Kesselman's decision to remain at his alma mater relieves Stockton of the pressure to find an immediate interim president and then a permanent replacement. Deininger, the trustee chair, said in a Stockton news release that the university's administrative leadership will be reevaluated after Saatkamp's resignation takes effect this fall.

As acting president, Kesselman receives the president's annual salary of $320,850, matching the salary Saatkamp still draws.

As for Kesselman's future at Stockton, he demurred when asked about his hopes of becoming the permanent president, saying he is focused on taking things one day at a time.

"I'm not even going to speculate at this point. . . . It's an honor and privilege just to work at Stockton, let alone to be the president of Stockton," he said.

"Obviously, if that should take place, I'd be thrilled, but right now my role is to ensure the . . . vitality of this institution," he said.

"I'm still a tenured full professor here, too. But right now, let's just take one day at a time, OK?"


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