PORTLAND, Maine — Theo Kalikow said the plea from University of Maine System Chancellor James Page to come out of retirement and take over the presidency of the University of Southern Maine came as a surprise.

Kalikow retired from the presidency of the University of Maine at Farmington on June 30 after 18 years.

“[Page’s request] made my head explode,” Kalikow said Tuesday, her first day on the job at USM after the system trustees approved her appointment Monday. “But then I thought about it for not very long. … The chancellor said, ‘If USM doesn’t work, the system doesn’t work. Would you please come and try this?’”

Kalikow is stepping in for Selma Botman, who announced her resignation from the position last week to take a job in the chancellor’s office leading the system’s international recruitment efforts.

In the spring, Botman was the subject of a facultywide “no-confidence” vote. Although 194 of the 282 faculty members who took part cast ballots of “no confidence,” because only about 75 percent of the overall faculty voted, it fell short of the two-thirds margin necessary to officially represent “the will of the faculty.”

Mending the university administration’s relationship with the faculty is among Kalikow’s early tasks as USM’s new president, she said, as is preparing for the fall arrival of students.

“The institution has been through a certain amount of turmoil and change, and [faculty members] have to calm down and start the school year,” Kalikow said. “And I have to let them know I’m listening to them and that somebody’s here for them as president.”

Kalikow, who met with reporters throughout the day Tuesday, said institutions of higher education must be flexible in the face of changes in society, the economy and technology. She said USM, located in what Page described Tuesday as Maine’s “economic engine” of greater Portland, must continue to build connections in the surrounding businesses and community organizations.

“We can cut the budget and streamline operations and create relevant classes and blah, blah, blah — but if we don’t have those community connections, a university won’t be successful,” she said.

Kalikow said she’s not lining up specific goals or benchmarks for her presidency until she has spent more time on the job to gauge challenges and opportunities. But she recalled that she was willing to consider radical change as the incoming president at the University of Maine at Farmington in 1993, a decade after she read and was affected by the influential Reagan Administration report “A Nation At Risk,” which among other things recommended tying teacher pay to student performance.

“When I got to Farmington we really started looking at, ‘How can accountability be implemented in higher education so that faculty will embrace it and students will benefit from it?’” she recalled.

Kalikow said she also focused on building the university’s reputation by highlighting the work of the school’s faculty and students — UMF was named one of U.S. News & World Report’s 100 best regional universities for 15 straight years under Kalikow — and on catering to the strengths of incoming freshmen. The Farmington campus was among 20 universities nationwide highlighted in the American Association for Higher Education report “Student Success in College: Creating Conditions that Matter.”

“We tore up the curriculum and we refocused it,” she said. “We focused on the first-year experience and helping them make the transition from high school to college.”

Kalikow is a former member of the boards of the Finance Authority of Maine, the Western Mountains Alliance, the Association of American Colleges & Universities, the Maine Humanities Council and the American Council on Education’s Commission on Women.

Page can appoint Kalikow to the USM presidency for up to two years without opening the position up to a search process. Kalikow will be paid $203,000 annually. She said Tuesday she won’t guess whether she will seek to remain in the position longer than two years.

“Not too long ago, I didn’t know I’d be sitting here,” she said. “I thought I’d be in my rowing shell or out puttering in my garden. So I’m not predicting what will happen in two years.”


Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.