PORTLAND — Theodora Kalikow has few preconceived notions on how to fix the problems that plague the University of Southern Maine.

On her first day as USM’s newly appointed president, Kalikow recalled advice she has offered other college administrators who sought her guidance when she was head of the University of Maine at Farmington for the last 18 years.

“One of the first things I say to new presidents is, ‘shut up,'” Kalikow said Tuesday with trademark frankness. “You can lose it at the opening (faculty) dinner if you come in and tell them all the things you’re going to do to them. The first thing I’m going to do is listen. A lot.”

Kalikow stepped down last month from UMF, where she was the longest-serving president since the school became a four-year college in 1945. Under her leadership, UMF received top regional rankings in U.S. News & World Report for 15 consecutive years and was nationally recognized as one of 20 model universities committed to maximizing student potential in “Student Success in College: Creating Conditions that Matter,” published by the American Association for Higher Education.

At 71, Kalikow intended to retire, enjoy her home in Mount Vernon and work as a consultant for the University of Maine System, promoting community economic development and programs to entice rural kids to attend college. Instead, she has delayed those plans for at least two years, taking the USM job at the request of the system’s new chancellor, James Page.

Kalikow replaced Selma Botman, USM’s president for four years, who requested reassignment in the wake of recent controversy over big raises she gave top administrators amid funding and program cutbacks. On Monday, system trustees appointed Kalikow to the USM post and Botman to head the system’s international student recruitment efforts.

Page said he picked Kalikow for her demonstrated ability to lead a complex institution, her deep understanding of the challenges facing higher education and her no-nonsense approach to addressing problems and communicating with people.

“I couldn’t ask for a better combination,” Page said Tuesday.

Kalikow said several conditions threaten to bring disruptive change to higher education across the United States, including increasingly diverse student needs and varied educational outlets, both of which have been aided by the Internet.

Society’s value of education and what people are willing to pay for it are changing, especially when it comes to funding public education, Kalikow said. Meanwhile, employers continue to demand better trained workers and a democratic nation needs educated voters, she said.

“These are challenges we need to be ready for,” said Kalikow, a Massachusetts native who has a doctorate in philosophy from Boston University.

Kalikow declined to discuss specific problems at USM before she meets with students, professors, administrators and other staff members. She described them broadly as “challenges and opportunities.”

Some of those challenges, however, are daunting. USM has an overall graduation rate of 35 percent, compared to 59 percent at UMF, according to educationnews.org. Enrollment at USM has dropped from 11,382 to 9,301 since 2002, leaving many empty dorm rooms on the Gorham campus.

USM also struggles to meet diverse student and faculty needs on three campus, including Portland and Lewiston, and it competes with several other public, private and for-profit colleges in southern Maine.

To address these issues, Kalikow said she’ll listen to the USM community, lead the development of a clear vision to move the university forward, and identify and empower campus leaders to carry out those goals. She calls it “structured freedom.”

“My basic thinking is, presidents do nothing,” Kalikow said. “The answers are in the institution. I’m a catalyst. People here know what needs to be done. It isn’t rocket science.”

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