James Conneely said he plans to go on a listening tour during his first 100 days as the new president of the University of Maine at Augusta. After all, there’s only so much to be gained from just reading about the school.

“It’s really about listening and asking questions and making sure I understand what I’ve read over the last couple months and to make sure I’m interpreting what I’ve read correctly,” Conneely said by telephone from Kentucky, where he resides. “I’m very excited.”

Conneely, who starts in Augusta on Tuesday, hopes to spend the next several months meeting key people on and off campus to get a feel for the concerns of faculty, staff and students. He also wants to continue meeting with University of Maine System Chancellor James Page, other presidents in the University of Maine System, the board of trustees and local legislators and community leaders.

Page said via email that the system is eager to bring Conneely’s experience and passion for student-focused service to UMA, “where we focus on serving students of all ages, locations and backgrounds.

“(President Conneely) will also be joining our university leadership team where his ideas and energy can help us expand access to public higher education beyond our seven campuses and into the communities of Maine,” he wrote.

Conneely takes over for interim presidents Rebecca Wyke and Glenn Cummings, who have led the school since September 2014 after Allyson Handley left the university to take a job in California. Conneely said Wyke and Cummings left the institution in good condition.

“They built a really strong foundation, and I just want to build on the successes they had,” he said.

When going through last year’s interview process, Conneely said he was impressed by the faculty and staff and the commitment they had to serving the students. He said they believe in the institution and are always looking at ways they can do things better.

“When you have a faculty and staff like that, it’s exciting, and you can’t help but do anything but keep going forward,” Conneely said. “They impressed me with their commitment and how they don’t view themselves as a small school. They view themselves as an intimate institution that provides a quality education.”

One of the faculty members impressed by Conneely was psychology professor Ken Elliott, who was on the presidential search committee. Elliott said Conneely stood out in his desire to come to Maine and help revitalize UMA at a time of many challenges.

“It was a very robust search, and he did very well,” said Elliott, who became a full-time UMA professor in 1991. “He is a good fit, and I think there is a high level of interest and goodwill among the faculty.”

The university’s mission and mandate to provide affordable and accessible higher education to all Mainers was another draw to the position. Conneely wants to serve adult learners, nontraditional students and veterans and give them an intellectually challenging educational experience both on campus and online.

“I want to make sure we are building services and programs that serve our diverse student population and that they have every opportunity to be successful,” he said.

Conneely noted that Maine’s changing demographic has him asking how the school can adapt its services as the student population changes.

“As with any public institution, we have to address the financial challenges that face public education today, and Maine is no different than what I faced at other public institutions,” he said. “I think the challenge for UMA is to really capitalize on and diversify the enrollment base so it can handle the ebb and flow of the economy.”

Conneely thinks he will be able to hit the ground running when he starts Tuesday, in part because of the conversations he’s had since he was named president in December and the research and reading he’s done. He said he’s gone over budgets and personnel and accreditation reports and thinks it won’t take him long to get up to speed.

“I don’t feel like I’m going in blind, and I feel pretty good about the learning curve,” he said. “I feel like I have a good handle on where I need to focus my attention, especially during the first 100 days.”

Conneely has set goals for his first year as president that include gaining a deeper understanding of the needs of Mainers, including the rural areas served by the university. He said his first year will be a success if the faculty, staff and students feel positive about the direction of the university and if the school continues to have credibility and respectability throughout the region and state and country.

“Having a stable faculty and staff that believes in what we are doing and wants to be a part of it (will show success),” he said. “And having the recognition national and locally that we are meeting the needs of the citizens of Maine by doing things the right way and for the right reasons.”

Elliott said it’s been challenging having no firm leadership in place since Handley left, because of the problems facing the university, including budgetary and accreditation concerns.

“Not having a singular leader probably (slowed us down),” Elliott said. “Having continuity (in leadership) is more than nice. It’s vital.”

In his 30-plus years in higher education in places including Cedar Falls, Iowa; Fayetteville, Arkansas; and Richmond, Kentucky, Conneely has gained experience as a president, faculty member, researcher and fundraiser, all areas he believes will serve him well at UMA. He said he prides himself on his adaptability and thinks his skills and experience fit with UMA’s mission.

“My experience has given me a great palette to address challenges and opportunities, and when I am facing one, I have multiple platforms to pull from,” he said.

He said he will need to concentrate on developing an understanding of the political and cultural landscape in Maine.

“You have to live it and experience it and talk to people,” he said. “You cannot get that from books.”

Conneely is renting a condominium for now while his wife, Becky, finishes the school year in Kentucky. They plan to move into a house when she joins him in Maine this summer.

“Every time I have gone to a new community, you have to appreciate the community for what it has and what it’s about,” Conneely said. “Every place is unique, and I think that’s what my wife and I cherish about our background. We’ve been able to find a home in all of the communities that we’ve lived in.”

Conneely said there is tremendous opportunity to continue to grow the university, which is 50 years old and right on the cusp of having history and reputation, but “it’s still young enough to do things differently than other institutions that aren’t as willing to try.

“I like to challenge the status quo and look at things from a different perspective,” he said. “I think UMA is fertile for that type of leadership, and I want UMA to serve as a cultural, intellectual and economic driver for central Maine and beyond.”

Conneely’s contract runs through June 30, 2018, and will pay him $192,000 annually. The contract can be extended each July 1 beginning in 2017.

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ

 


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