New MMA leader calls for “smart ways to grow”

Posted May 06, 2010, at 8:38 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:44 a.m.

CASTINE, Maine — Maine Maritime Academy will need to continue to grow, but that growth likely will take place beyond the boundaries of its home in Castine, the college’s new president said this week.

William J. Brennan officially began his tenure as president Monday, although he has been working on campus part time since January.

Enrollment is at its maximum, Brennan said in an interview. Increasing enrollment could affect the college’s ability to fulfill its mission and could have a negative impact on programs, he said.

“But any business has got to grow; we can’t remain static,” he added. “I think we need to explore ways to export what we do beyond this physical space.”

That likely will involve working with other institutions to partner in ventures at other locations and tapping communications technology to expand into “virtual space” to provide distance learning opportunities, Brennan said.

“We have to look at smart ways to grow — both real and virtual — beyond Castine proper,” he said.

The college’s growth has been an issue in town in recent years, raising concern about MMA’s overall impact on the town. Brennan acknowledged the issue, saying that although there has been a college in the town since the 1800s, it has been only in the past decade or so that Castine has really become a “college town.”

Although Brennan did not discuss specific town-college issues, he said his long relationship with the town and the college may put him in a unique position to work effectively on those issues.

Brennan grew up in Castine. Two of his uncles were MMA graduates, as was his father, who also served as MMA’s commandant of midshipmen and then as administrative assistant to former MMA President Kenneth Curtis.

“I have a longtime connection to the town and to the academy,” he said. “There are people here that I’ve known all my life and that I consider my friends. I think that puts me in a position to deal with these issues head-on.

“I don’t expect to solve all the problems,” he added. “But I like to think that I’ll be able to bring people to a place where issues can be resolved.”

Brennan brings a strong environmental and administrative background to the college. He served as Maine’s marine resources commissioner, was assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, and served as administrator of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

That background, he said, has given him experience in dealing with budgetary matters, personnel management, legislative relations and public relations, all important experience for a college president.

“At this stage of my life, I think I might be the right person at the right time for the institution,” he said. “I want to see the school thrive. What better way to do it than in this capacity?”

Brennan praised his predecessor, Leonard Tyler, who retired last week after 14 years as president, and said he couldn’t be taking the helm of the college at a better time.

The college does face challenges, he said, involving people, facilities and finances. Continuing to recruit students and to attract and retain faculty remain priorities, he said. He also will have to focus on capital projects such as the planned ABS applied engineering technology building and the upgrade of the college’s waterfront area.

Brennan also acknowledges that a major portion of his new job will involve fundraising for capital projects, endowments and the school’s operating budget.

“That is the reality for a college president these days,” he said. “This is a state institution, and we get about one-third of the school’s budget from the state. I can’t be sanguine about that level of funding continuing, and I’m going to be working to identify new sources of funding to meet the needs of the institution.”

Brennan said he has been in touch with the state’s congressional delegation as well as other contacts he has in Washington, D.C., to explore different avenues of funding for the college.

Those efforts, he said, also could extend to a “town and gown” relationship, with the college working to find state and federal funding to help with municipal infrastructure needs.

Brennan said he did not aspire to become a college president but that he already had had an inkling of the future when he served as Sawyer Professor of Ocean Studies at MMA.

“I feel very fortunate to be able to come home to a place where I always wanted to come back to,” he said. “This is an opportunity for me to give back to a place that has given so much to me over the years.”

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