March 26, 2019

An Army of One New UMS chancellor already making mark on state education scene

When he was acting secretary of the Army, Joseph Westphal would be picked up in a limousine driven by Secret Service men who would hand him his briefing papers and whisk him to the Pentagon using a different route each day.

Now the new University of Maine System chancellor organizes his own materials and drives himself around in a GMC sport utility vehicle with a Fleetwood Mac CD cranked up full blast, his eyes peeled for moose.

But Westphal, who left his fast-paced lifestyle inside the Beltway six months ago to head Maine’s seven-campus system, said he’s had no problem adjusting.

“In some ways, I love the privacy I have now,” said Westphal. “I was never alone. It’s nice to not have a bunch of colonels standing around, to go out with my wife at night and not worry about security, to drive my own car.”

In Maine just six months, Westphal has shown that he can carve out a niche for himself without the help of any colonels.

Since taking on his new position, he has established himself as someone who’s not afraid to offer bold new ideas.

He recently raised some eyebrows when, in the face of a huge projected state budget shortfall, he proposed a double-digit increase in state funding for UMS during the next two years.

He shook things up even more a few days later when he mentioned merging the state’s technical college system with UMS, a controversial idea that’s only been talked about in hushed tones over the years.

Change is good, Westphal asserted. He should know. Over the years, the 54-year-old former head of the Oklahoma State University political science department has held a number of high-powered positions.

After leaving OSU in 1987, he spent a year conducting research projects for the Institute for Water Resources. From 1988 to 1995 he was executive director of the Congressional Sunbelt Caucus and during the next two years he served as special assistant to a Mississippi senator.

The next year was spent as a senior policy adviser on water issues at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In 1998 he began his stint at the Pentagon where he was assistant secretary of the Army in charge of the Army Corps of Engineers and then acting secretary of the Army.

Just two months before terrorists blew a hole in the Pentagon, killing scores of people, he left the Army job to become senior policy counselor with Patton Boggs, a prestigious law firm in Washington.

Refreshing change

Maine politics are a refreshing change from Washington, said Westphal, who earns $175,000 a year. “The nicest thing I’ve encountered here is the whole different attitude about politics. [It’s] less strident, less partisan. People trust each other more here. There’s very little name-calling and attacking.”

Westphal has been surprised on another front, too. Traveling around the state visiting each campus, the chancellor said he has noticed how “economically diverse” Maine is.

“I didn’t realize how big or how rural it was, or the great disparity between rich and poor,” he said.

That’s why he said he’s “so adamant” about getting more state funding so the system can freeze tuition and increase student financial aid.

“It’s a myth that there’s no money,” he said. “There is money there, but not a lot. So naturally we need to set priorities … and decide how to divide the limited resources.”

Friendly and outgoing, Westphal has a brisk manner that’s at once engaging and professional. Given to freshly starched shirts and neat, dark suits, he radiates confidence whether he’s inspecting the upkeep of campus facilities, sharing future goals with the University of Maine Board of Visitors, or testifying before the Legislature on budget issues.

The new chancellor has no qualms about calling things as he sees them.

“I have a sense you’re not being very precise,” he told University of Maine at Fort Kent officials who had given him an estimate for library renovation funds last month.

A few days later, about to take a tour of UM’s Hitchner Hall, currently under renovation, he made no effort to hide his unhappiness.

“Why can’t we sweep the sidewalks and cut the grass? Why does it have to look like this?” he complained to top campus officials.

Praising last week’s hearing in Augusta in which he was grilled for 40 minutes about his request for increased funding, Westphal said he “welcomed the questions.”

“I thought it was a really good hearing,” he said. “I thought the issues needed to be raised. I liked the tone … it was professional, healthy and respectful. As long as the tone stays that way, people can get things done.”

With budget talks in the offing, it seemed like the right time to broach his controversial idea about merging Maine’s higher institutions, Westphal said.

“It’s hard to talk about the budget and not talk about how to make it more efficient,” said the chancellor who contends the university system and the technical college system are duplicating services because they both function as community colleges.

Learning about Maine

A stickler for promptness and for returning phone calls, Westphal would be at his desk in Washington shortly after daybreak. “I learned which members of Congress and staff people were in their offices at 6 a.m. I made sure I got their direct phone numbers so I could conduct lots of business with people who are hard to reach during the day,” he said.

Here in Maine, Westphal continues to jumpstart his day. Arriving at 7:30 a.m. allows him time to check e-mails and “catch up on things without being interrupted,” he said.

With a keen interest in everything around him, he is particularly fascinated by others’ stories. “I could spend all day talking about what people do,” he said.

He’s taken it upon himself to learn firsthand about two of the state’s major occupations – lobstering and logging.

In August, Westphal accompanied Steve Patryn of Jonesboro on his 50-foot lobster boat, The Northern Eagle.

“I learned about everything he does – about [lobstering’s] legal and environmental issues, about the culture surrounding it and about what research is doing for these people,” the chancellor said.

Patryn said he was leery at first about taking Westphal out on his boat.

“There’s quite a bit of culture difference between the two of us. But we hit it off great. Joe took right over. He’d do everything – clean traps, put bait in, and close the door on the trap like a regular lobsterman. A lot of guys will forget that. He didn’t.”

Last week Westphal traveled to Pinkham Lumber in Ashland where he said he learned “about the kinds of regulations, employment issues and education issues” involved in the industry.

Westphal said he came away with the notion that the university should be more involved on the business end of things.

“We’re doing lots of work with the industries on the science and technical pieces,” he said. “What we could do, but aren’t, is helping more with the business and marketing” side, possibly involving business and agriculture professors.

This fall, Westphal said, he plans to meet with students at each campus “to find out more about the issues they think are important and the challenges they face.”

“It’s hard here [at his isolated office at 107 Maine Ave.] with no daily contact with faculty and students. So there’s less of a sense about what they’re thinking,” said Westphal, who may even give some lectures.

“I loved being a teacher,” said Westphal who taught political science for 22 years. “The more I taught the more I realized how hard teaching is. The better your students are the tougher your job. People say it’s easy to teach good students, but it’s not. They challenge you and you need to be prepared.”

Army mementos

Westphal’s office in Bangor reflects his love for his family, for his Army career, and for his new home.

On the wall behind his desk hang oil paintings he borrowed from the University of Maine Museum of Art. One depicts a schooner and another, downtown Eastport in 1966.

His favorite is a scene of Bangor viewed from the Brewer side of the Penobscot River. “I saw it and I instantly loved it,” he said of the brightly colored 1936 painting.

Atop a small table stands a figure of a soldier given to him by a regiment in Fort Bragg, N.C., and a coin emblazoned with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier presented to him by the superintendent of Arlington National Cemetery.

Westphal pointed out a small wooden box that Gen. Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave him when he left Washington.

“I could fill the room with [mementos] from my Army days,” he said. “I’ll bring a few more in. But this is more of an academic office.”

Proudly pointing to photographs of his son and three daughters, who range in age from 21 to 33, Westphal was happy to talk about his personal life.

Born in Chile, Westphal grew up speaking English and Spanish. When he was 4 his father, an accountant with IBM, moved the family to Port Washington, N.Y.

As a high school junior, Westphal and his family relocated again, this time to McLean, Va., when his father took a position with the World Bank.

Married 34 years to his wife, Linda, Westphal said the two embarked on a college romance at Adelphi University when he was a football player and she a cheerleader, a year behind him.

They married when he was a senior, moved into “married student housing” and had their son a year later, he said.

“We struggled to stay in school and raise kids,” said Westphal who went on to earn a master’s degree in political science from Oklahoma State University and a doctorate in political science from the University of Missouri – Columbia.

“We had no money, no credit cards. It’s what makes you strong,” he said.

Strange coincidences

His move to Maine may have been preordained, Westphal said. Last winter, as he was preparing to come up for an interview he noticed his wife was carrying in her wallet a 1970 picture of him and his parents vacationing in Darmariscotta.

“It’s that Stephen King kind of stuff,” he said, grinning.

Something else turned out to be strangely coincidental. “We’re sitting in [what used to be] the base commander’s office,” said Westphal, noting that the building that houses the chancellor’s office had been part of Dow Air Force Base.

“It’s funny coming from the Pentagon and sitting here,” he said.

His Army days were some of the best. “The most wonderful thing I did was spend time with the soldiers,” said Westphal, who traveled to Kosovo, Bosnia and other places where troops were deployed.

Westphal learned in the Army how to be organized and thorough.

“The Army is so perfect about everything,” he said, recalling the breakfast routine that invariably consisted of granola, skim milk, coffee and orange juice placed on a fully set table complete with salt, pepper and ketchup.

“They were so wonderful,” he said, laughing. “If they’re setting a table, they set it right. They don’t go halfway.”

Worst month

Linda Westphal resigned as assistant vice president for human resources at George Mason University to come to Maine. She encouraged her husband to take the UMS job.

The couple’s first visit to the state last February began inauspiciously when she and the chancellor arrived on a “really ugly night – cold, rainy and foggy,” he recalled.

The woman at the Bangor International Airport’s ticket counter was incredulous when she learned the couple planned to move to Maine.

“We’re all trying to get out of here,” she said.

“My wife and I looked at each other. It was definitely not the kind of thing we wanted to hear. It kind of set us back,” Westphal said.

The weather next day was even worse, he said. Downtown Bangor “was dead. There wasn’t a car in sight.”

Finally the sun came out “and the whole place changed,” he said. In the end, the couple agreed, the best time to see Bangor was during the “worst month.”

Now, Westphal said, he and Linda are confident they made the right decision. They’ve driven to the coast, attended productions at the Maine Center for the Arts, and sat in the UM stadium, cheering along with the other Black Bear fans.

“This is a wonderful place to live, it’s a good place to raise a family, to support education … you can’t have it any better,” Westphal said.

Leaving behind a glittering, cosmopolitan lifestyle doesn’t faze either of them. They can always visit their children in Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Kansas City, the chancellor said.

Here in Maine Westphal should have no trouble indulging his passions for football, hockey and soccer. Preparing gourmet food in his new kitchen in the couple’s recently purchased house on Bangor’s east side and finding a place to buy good, strong coffee beans also are on his agenda.

While Westphal loves science fiction movies, his taste in reading is more eclectic. Typically immersed in four or five books at the same time, Westphal said he’s currently reading an account of World War II, a biography of John Adams, a Spanish novel and a primer on running techniques.

Completing them is sure to be a slow process, according to Westphal. “As soon as I start to read, I fall asleep,” he said.

But he rarely spends a night without tossing and turning. “I think about all the things I need to do, all the lists I need to make, all the meetings I’m supposed to go to. It’s mostly being self-critical because I haven’t done the things I wanted to do. It’s always been that way. But it doesn’t make my lists get done any better,” he said with a rueful grin.

Reaching out

While he may have rankled some people with his new ideas, Westphal has impressed local officials. Soon after he came on board as chancellor he arranged a meeting with the Bangor City Council. Last summer he asked the Army Corps of Engineers to visit Bangor to discuss waterfront development.

Praising Westphal’s outreach efforts, Mayor Michael Crowley said the new chancellor “established the atmosphere for a partnership that’s long overdue.”

Networking both here and back in Washington is vital, according to Westphal, who recently returned to the Capitol to attend a congressional dinner.

“It was an opportunity to go back and see a lot of friends and keep connected. I wanted to remind them where I was … to say I’m going to be back asking for money for [UMS] and for Maine,” he said.

“We’re inextricably linked to Washington. We depend on federal funds because they mandate so much. We have to be connected there and be aggressive,” he said.

Whenever he runs into someone he hasn’t seen for a while, he pulls out his new business card.

“They’ll look and say, ‘Oh my God, you’re kidding me. That’s great. What a terrific job.'”

Tandem jumping

As assistant secretary of the army, Westphal said he did a “tandem jump” from a plane flying at 10,000 feet. Harnessed to a soldier from Fort Bragg’s Golden Knights Army 82nd Airborne Unit, Westphal sailed through the air and landed safely.

“I just felt it was something I wanted to do,” he said. “It was scary, but it was fun.”

That philosophy has guided Westphal throughout his life. “I’ve never had a plan,” he said. “I’ve come into each job for various reasons, but not because I was scheming to do it. The opportunity came my way and I haven’t been afraid to try new things.”

Westphal considers himself a lucky man.

“Each job I’ve had has been fascinating,” said the chancellor who worked to clean up rivers in this country and spent more than 15 years helping Latin American countries establish representative forms of government.

With no specific timetable, Westphal won’t predict how long he’ll stay.

“It’s how much I can learn that makes a job interesting. Since April, I can’t tell you how much I’ve developed and learned as a person about education and government,” he said. “It’s when I stop learning that it will be time to move on.”

Joseph Westphal looks at the condition of Holmes Hall, built in 1888, during the Orono campus facilities tour recently.

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