BANGOR – Joseph Westphal, former assistant secretary of the Army, has agreed to take the job of University of Maine System chancellor.
Westphal, 54, will leave his position as senior policy counselor with one of the largest law firms in Washington, D.C., to take up his new duties by April 1 at the latest, UMS board of trustees Chair Jim Mullen said Wednesday. Westphal was the unanimous choice Tuesday of the UMS board from among three candidates.
Although he has no direct ties to Maine, Westphal, former acting secretary of the Army, has worked closely with two of the state’s most famous political figures – former Secretary of Defense William Cohen and Sen. Olympia Snowe, a former member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Westphal worked under Cohen between 1998 and 2001 during the Clinton administration.
Paid an annual salary of $175,000, Westphal will be provided a vehicle as well as a housing allowance, Mullen said. Former chancellor Terry MacTaggart earned $155,000.
Westphal, who was an aide in the Department of the Interior under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and headed up the Army Corps of Engineers under Clinton, was an associate professor and chairman of the Oklahoma State University political science department between 1975 and 1987 and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University since 1996.
At first glance, Westphal looks like an unlikely choice for chancellor. He was the finalist with the least academic experience and he has never run a college campus.
But Mullen said that although Westphal “may not, at first, look like what many people would expect … in a chancellor,” the board liked his diverse interests, his experience running large and complex organizations and his global perspective.
“We were intrigued by the notion that we’ll be able to have someone looking at things in a fresh and innovative way,” Mullen said. “I think that will be helpful to us because the environment we’re in today is very different than it was traditionally.”
While pointing out that Westphal has had experience educating soldiers all over the world through distance education and Web-based learning, Mullen said there were “an awful lot of parallels that we think lined up very well with what we have ahead of us in the next several years.” He was referring to the system’s stated goals to educate more people, balance its budget and play a greater role in stoking the state’s economy.
Westphal said Wednesday he was delighted with the prospect of coming to Maine. Other people are “incredibly jealous,” he said during a quick phone interview as he rushed from meeting to meeting at the Washington law offices of Patton Boggs, where he is a partner.
“People who are making a lot more money are offering to trade places with me,” he said.
Faculty throughout the system said Wednesday they were pleased with the trustees’ decision and not particularly bothered that Westphal had less higher-education experience than his competitors.
Jim McClymer, president of the faculty union and an associate professor of physics at the University of Maine, said Westphal would have been his pick.
“I’m a little more hopeful than if the other two had been chosen,” he said.
After Westphal’s visit, some faculty had voiced concerns that he didn’t have enough academic experience, McClymer said.
But the physics teacher hopes the new chancellor “will be able to listen to faculty and [other] constituents and not be stuck into some predefined rut … as others may have been.”
Ken Petress, chairman of the faculty assembly at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, said he is confident Westphal’s background will work in the system’s favor.
“I have a military background and I believe that for many, an extensive military experience brings with it many of the values and skills needed to administer educational institutions. You need discipline, a sense of vision and the ability to command – not in a negative way, but to get others to act in concert for a specified end goal.”
Petress, who met the candidate last month during his visit to UMPI, said Westphal gives the impression that he would be willing to listen and change his mind if necessary – “not to be terribly rigid, which is something we sure do need.”
UM-Machias associate professor of biology Sherri Sprangers, a faculty representative to the board of trustees and a member of the search committee, said that before the chancellor search even began, faculty representatives from the seven campuses discussed whether they would be “comfortable with someone outside academia.”
“There were mixed feelings, but having been through the search process, I’m very comfortable with the choice that was made,” she said.
Lucy Stroble, director of teacher education at UMPI, said she thinks the new chancellor will “make a strong case for the university in the Legislature.”
Westphal said he contacted Cohen when he was recruited for chancellor “because he’s a good friend and he was my boss.
“He was very high on it,” said Westphal, who asked Cohen to be a reference.
Snowe spokesman Dave Lackey said Westphal discussed the position last week with the senator.
“He came to her both as someone with whom he had a good working relationship and whom he knew was an alumna of the university,” Lackey said.
Snowe “believes [Westphal] is an outstanding choice,” Lackey said.
Meanwhile, Westphal said his only agenda at first will be to listen and learn.
“It would be wrongheaded for anybody – I don’t care how much experience they have in higher education – to come in and say they’ve got the answers. I need to meet with people in the state and get a certain sense of their needs and priorities before I establish what mine will be.”
The other two candidates for the chancellor’s job were Richard Crofts, commissioner of higher education in Montana, and Robert Perry, executive director of the South Dakota board of regents.