What’s your biggest challenge right now?

Oh, I think our biggest challenge is the same challenge that all the schools in Maine and most of the schools in this part of the country are facing. And that’s the shift in demographics. There are just fewer high school graduates coming through the high schools in Maine, so there’s increased competition for students. We are definitely seeing that competition for those high school graduates.

I think that leads to our biggest challenge, which is enrollment, and that’s no surprise. It’s a trend line that everyone has been experiencing. It’s been going down for the past seven years. It’s a gradual slope. The prediction is in 2026 that there’s a cliff. Because if you go back in time to 2008, 2009, the Great Recession, people were not having babies. They were holding off for financial reasons and so that cliff hits us in 2026. There’s a gradual rebound after that. Every school in the country is kind of looking at that cliff.

I think Farmington is just such a wonderful place. I think that would be a compelling place for international students, but also for working adults, if there are working adults or adult students that want to come back for an education, I want to make sure that this is a warm and welcoming place.

I’ve had the chance in the first two months here (Serna started July 1) to get out and visit community colleges. I started a conversation with their presidents about how do we get students that after they get their associates degree from you want to continue on and Farmington’s a good fit for. I just think that we have to be a little more creative and not think about traditionally aged undergraduate students. That’s where we’re going to focus at least in this first year.

As a leader, what is the most important lesson that you have learned?

For me, especially in higher education, I think you need to be genuine, and I think you need to be comfortable. Because sometimes I think in higher education we get wrapped around the title of the president. And this might be a generation thing. I just think that role needs to be, people need to feel comfortable approaching you, that you’re genuine and that you’re honest and that you’re just a real person. And for me, that’s been the biggest thing with leadership. It’s just having people feel comfortable with me. It’s interesting though, coming from the business world to the higher education world, sometimes I think we’ve lost that and it’s a good lesson.

What skills do you value most in the people that work with you in higher education?

I want people who are honest, who work well with a team. I want people who are creative thinkers. I want people who come with solutions, not just problems, and they expect me to solve them. I like people who take risks and take chances and know that everything that we try is not going to be successful. That’s OK. I like a risk-tolerant person. I like people who are comfortable operating in a world where everything’s not black and white, that we operate in the gray and they’re OK with that and they thrive in that environment. Those are the skill sets I really, really value.

(To nurture those skills) first you have to talk to your people. I think one of the biggest problems in leadership is assuming that everyone is motivated by the same things you are and the same things out of their career and their life that you do.

And I think investing the time and getting to know your people, having those conversations and then understanding where they want to grow professionally and then giving them the opportunity to do in your people so that they can have the opportunity to lead projects, giving them the opportunity to really be able to have a voice in the decision-making process, nurturing an environment where you don’t feel like you’ll be criticized if you come up with an idea that other people don’t like.

And that starts at the top. That starts with the culture that you’re going to build on your team. It should be a collegial environment. I learned it working in management consulting because we work in a very flat organization and it was all team-based and everyone had a different skill set when we worked together. And we did great things.

What’s your biggest fear or concern right now? 

I think one of the things is that being from away, it’s taking the time to get to know the university and the community. When you’re in a situation where you are accustomed to having access to the information and knowing where everything is, I think you’re off balance for a little while because you’re trying to learn everything. You’re the new person. For me it’s having the patience to take the time to get to know everything I need to know before I start making too hasty a decision.
It’s the patience I guess I would say to not make assumptions based on previous experiences, to be able to apply that framework to here as much as I can and try to take the time to learn what I need to learn. Especially with my personality type, just to reign myself back a little bit.

Where do you see the University of Maine at Farmington in five years?

I think it’s going to be just a vibrant, more diverse campus. My real hope is that in five years, people will be looking as the rest of the nation gets to that enrollment cliff that people will be like: The University of Maine Farmington did it right. They were right. They started working on this five years ago. And that we have this diverse population. We’ll have these students who have come from different walks of life and diversity with a big D — all types of diversity, age and race and gender and just everyone here in this vibrant community that really is a national model for the regional public university in a rural state. That’s what I want. I’m excited about it. I think we can do it. I really believe that.

The first indication is when enrollment stars rebounding. The second indication is when I look across the campus and in the classrooms and I see that in person. We’ll just know, we’ll feel it on the campus.

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