ORONO, Maine — Paul Ferguson, one of four finalists vying to be the University of Maine’s next president, was on campus Wednesday for a series of public meetings with faculty, staff and students.
Ferguson, 58, a native of South California, boasts an extensive resume and has worked in higher education for more than 17 years, though he has not yet held a presidency.
He now is the provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where he has worked since 2006. From 1999 to 2006, he served as the dean of the graduate college and as senior vice provost at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Ferguson and three other finalists are seeking to succeed UMaine president, Robert Kennedy, who is stepping down in June. The new president is expected to take over in July.
In speaking with a small group of faculty members on Wednesday, who were concerned about everything from budget constraints to UMaine’s image as it competes against both private and public schools throughout the region, Ferguson said UMaine has a “sacred mission” to both preserve its place as the state’s flagship university and promote job growth throughout the state.
In order to do this, he said, the university must carve out a distinct role within the University of Maine System while calling upon a 150-year-old tradition: to prove it is unparalleled in comparison to other university campuses in the state, especially in the areas of research and academics. He added that at the same time, UMaine must be willing to share its resources and lead to promote a better higher education system throughout the state, as well as help to build Maine’s economy.
“Systems and flagships are facing this issue across the country because of budget stress,” he said. “It isn’t us versus them, but rather, asking ourselves how can we do better as an institution for higher learning.”
As recently as last year, UMaine was forced to cut a number of faculty positions and suspend academic departments or cut them altogether. The university also faces budget constraints through 2014 in addition to declining appropriations from the state Legislature and reorganization at the system level.
The biggest problem facing the university, Ferguson said, is resources. He said UMaine’s next president will have to be “extraordinarily entrepreneurial” in order to compensate for declining appropriations from the state Legislature and the financial strains caused in the aftermath of the recession.
Ferguson said, if hired as president, he would work to increase enrollment rates, which have declined at UMaine in recent years, improve graduation rates and find creative and strategic solutions to buttress innovation and academics at the university.
Financially, Ferguson said he would pursue more state and federal dollars through grants and continue to make investments in research and development, which he deemed “absolutely critical” to the school’s overall mission in the state.
He also said he would work to create more private partnerships with industries and companies throughout Maine, not only to gain contracts that would generate revenue for the university, but also to help to create jobs and strengthen curriculum.
During their meeting with Ferguson, students shared their expectations of UMaine’s next president and voiced their frustrations. Parking, meal plans, space on campus and communication with administrators were among some of the more vexing issues students shared with the candidate for UMaine president on Wednesday.
“Students should be a part of the decision-making process. I’ve always believed that. If I were president here, I would work to open up better lines of communication,” Ferguson told the students.
The finalist also spoke at length on the many improvements he has helped to create at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where he says enrollment has reached unprecedented levels in the last five years.
The school is similar in size to UMaine with a fall 2009 enrollment of 11,100. UMaine had an enrollment of 11,500 in fall 2010. The similarities, Ferguson said, will help him to transfer his leadership approach to UMaine if he is chosen as its next president.
Ferguson was the final candidate to visit the campus for interviews and public meetings. The first finalist, James Page, CEO of Sewall Co. in Old Town, visited in late January. The second finalist, Donald Farish, president of Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J., visited during the first week of February. And the third finalist, Daniel Julius, who is vice president of academic affairs for the University of Alaska system, visited last week.
University of Maine System officials tentatively expect to make a decision on who they will hire to be president sometime before the end of March, according to UMaine spokesman Joe Carr.