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New UMaine president arrives, Kennedy’s role assessed

Kate Collins | BDN
Kate Collins | BDN
Paul W. Ferguson (center), the new president of the University of Maine in Orono, laughs with members of the Division of Student Affairs as he tours various departments on the campus to meet employees on Friday, July 1, 2011. Left is Kristie Deschesne, Assistant Director of Student Affairs, and on right is Lauri Sidelko, associate dean fellow and director of Alcohol and Drug Education Programs.
By Judy Harrison, BDN Staff

ORONO, Maine — Friday was a transition day for the state’s land grant university.

Paul W. Ferguson took over as the 19th president of the University of Maine from former president Robert Kennedy. Ferguson, 58, spent his first official day on campus moving into his office and greeting staff, faculty and students.

The board of trustees for the University of Maine System in March named Ferguson to replace Kennedy, who announced last year he would step down as president on June 30, 2011.

Ferguson came to UMaine from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where he served as provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs. A toxicologist with three decades of experience in academic and industry settings, Ferguson was a professor of pharmacy and toxicology at SIUE.

U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, a graduate of UMaine, welcomed Ferguson to the post in a press release issued Thursday.

“For nearly 150 years, UMaine has been on the vanguard of educating and preparing generations of students and leaders for our ever-changing world,” she said. “I look forward to working with Paul in this new role as he builds upon the tremendous success of this prestigious university.”

The senator also thanked Kennedy, 64, who is spending the summer in his home state of Minnesota, for his service to her alma mater.

“I also convey my profound gratitude to Bob Kennedy, who has been an unmistakable beacon of leadership during his exceptional tenure as UMaine’s 18th president,” she said. “From opening the Foster Center for Student Innovation to his vision in developing the ‘New Model Land-Grant University,’ Bob has truly been a distinguished steward of UMaine’s tradition as well as a forward-thinking catalyst whose legacy on campus and in our state will be felt for years to come.”

Chancellor Richard Pattenaude, head of the seven-campus system, also praised Kennedy earlier this week in a statement emailed to the Bangor Daily News.

“During his tenure enrollments have grown markedly, grant dollars have increased, fundraising has risen, and new facilities were built,” said Pattenaude, 65, who last month announced he would step down in June 2012. “President Kennedy has moved Maine’s land grant institution to new levels of accomplishment, bringing about improvements even as he ensured that the difficult budget situation did not hurt academic quality.”

Not all who worked with Kennedy during his tenure at the university — first as provost in 2000, then as president since 2005 — would agree with Snowe and Pattenaude’s assessments of Kennedy’s contributions to the state’s flagship campus. A few believe that especially during the last year or so of his tenure, advances made in the sciences came at the expense of the humanities, particularly cuts to foreign language offerings and Latin, specifically.

Kennedy was born and raised in Murdock, Minn., about 100 miles west of Minneapolis. He grew up on a corn and soybean farm, but he claims a Maine connection — his great-grandfather was born in Portland.

He learned to garden at his grandmother’s knee and earned his undergraduate degree in botany. That interest, he said in a recent interview, has been reflected on campus by the landscaping improvements implemented during his tenure. As president, he tended the gardens around the President’s House himself.

UMaine’s now-president emeritus did his graduate work at the University of California, Berkeley. He came to Maine from Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.

Kennedy’s own assessment of his successes at UMaine included redefining the role of a land grant university in the 21st century. During the last 100 years, that meant a research focus on the state’s agricultural products, especially blueberries and potatoes, and its major industries — forestry and fishing.

“I was asked at an alumni event in Atlanta what the five most recognized programs at the university are now,” Kennedy said recently. “I answered, ‘Wood composites, the Climate Change Institute, the Marine Science program, the National Poetry Foundation and our Forestry program.’

“Not only is each a very important program but very timely,” he said.  “Every one of them can contribute to the future of this country in terms of what society is facing. That is part of what the new land grant model is about — to really focus on programs that can make a difference to the state and add value to the undergraduate and graduate students’ experiences.”

That new vision for a land grant university has included changing lawmakers’ and the public’s perception about the role UMaine plays in the state’s current economy and its economic future.

“About 70 to 80 percent of our graduating students each year join the work force in Maine,” he said. “About 2,000 students graduate each year, so between 14,000 and 15,000 graduates have joined the work force under my tenure.”

Kennedy’s new model for the university has included a drastic change in how it is funded.

“The old model had two-thirds or more of funding for a public university coming from the state,” he said. “On average now nationally, it’s about one-third; ours is slightly less than one-third.”

That is one reason why he spent so much of his time fundraising and grant seeking, Kennedy said. During his presidency, the amount of money awarded annually to UMaine in research grants grew from about $30 million to $100 million. Through Campaign Maine, Kennedy raised more than $152 million in private funds. The purpose of the campaign was to raise private funds to be used to provide scholarships for qualified students, provide resources for a first-rate faculty, bolster the university’s academic programs and fund capital construction and renovation projects.

Despite those successes, UMaine history professor Jay Bregman has harshly criticized Kennedy publicly for what were perceived on campus to be the president’s proposed cuts to foreign language programs, particularly Latin. With a budget shortfall looming last year, Kennedy backed a proposal to phase out majors in foreign languages, including Latin.

“Thus outgoing President Kennedy may add to his ‘accomplishments’ that he has brought Maine the ‘distinction’ of now being the only flagship of a state university system in the whole country without a Latin or classics major,” Bregman wrote in a Feb. 14 guest OpEd published in the Bangor Daily News.

Bregman last week said that attrition of faculty with expertise in particular fields of study has left gaps in the history department’s ability to offer a worldview in the age of globalization.

“The result is no full-time historian of Latin America and no historian who specializes in 19th century America,” he said. “Our Medievalist retired in 2010. Combined with no replacements for Early Modern England and Europe and Modern France, we are now missing Europe from the end of Antiquity to the 18th Century and we have no French historian. We also need an expert on the Middle East.”

Howard Segal, who has taught history for 35 years at UMaine, said last week that many of the programs, such as the Honors College, brought to fruition under Kennedy’s tenure, were launched by his predecessor, Peter Hoff. Segal also said that he understands his colleague’s anger.

“The real problem is what happens when those colleges, departments, and programs that … can’t create jobs for Mainers — the mantra of Governors King and Baldacci and most state legislators — face relentless downsizing and budget and faculty and staff cuts,” Segal said in an email. “[Bregman’s] and others’ outrage at what has happened to the Humanities above all is understandable in this context. It’s a problem faced by many research universities, especially public ones, and it’s not easily addressed.”

Kennedy acknowledged in a May interview that there were groups in the humanities that felt forgotten. He said that the experience last year of looking at possible cuts to programs “was very compelling for me.”

“I had more students come up to me and tell me the importance of maintaining the music department from [the School of] Engineering than from any other department,” Kennedy said. “They spoke of how important music was to their university experience and showed me how broad the impact of the arts are on campus.”

One of the small programs Kennedy left on sound financial and academic footing is the Franco-American Center, according to Tony Brinkley, the senior faculty associate at the center.

“When he came on campus as provost, he schooled himself in many Maine realities,” Brinkley said last month. “He sought me out and wanted to learn about process and how things worked on campus in terms of what was in the best interest of the program so it would be viable and successful … and responsive to fully one-third of the state’s population whose heritage is Franco-American.”

Kennedy did not see the center’s work as peripheral to the university’s mission, Brinkley said. The only similar program that combines academic study of the Franco-American experience and community outreach to the community is at the Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, La.

“I’ve heard him say that ‘ignoring Maine’s French reality is like ignoring Maine’s coastline,’” Brinkley said. “In everything he does, Bob has vision and the political courage, backbone and stamina to see that vision realized.”

Brinkley, who has taught English at the university since the early 1980s, said he supported Kennedy’s approach to program cuts.

“Across-the-board cuts bleed everything,” he said. “There isn’t enough money to do everything. We have to look where we can be a world-class university. I hope the next president will continue that work.”

Kennedy also earned praise Friday from his successor.

“Bob, who has been so very gracious and helpful to my family and me during this transition, deserves great credit for his work as UMaine’s president,” Ferguson said. “This university has a positive spirit and sense of purpose, certainly attributable in large part to Bob’s leadership during his time as both provost and president.”

Kennedy will be on sabbatical during the fall semester and return to UMaine in 2012 to begin work on a systemwide curriculum on alternative energy. It will incorporate offerings at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle and the University of Maine Law School in Portland.

“We want take of advantage of their knowledge to leverage our resources,” he said. “There is no reason that work being done at one institution should be replicated by another. We’ve been doing that far too long. With today’s technology, we can partner across state resources to build a strong curriculum.”

Kennedy said he’s not ready to retire, and over the next few years may expand his work in developing ways the private sector and the public universities can work together for economic development.

His only advice offered to his successor was to continue fundraising for research dollars.

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