saatkamp conversation

Herman J. Saatkamp, president of Richard Stockton College, talks about his educational philosophy and how he has integrated it with the college Friday, Sept. 2.

Herman J. Saatkamp Jr. became the fourth president of Richard Stockton College in June 2003. As the college prepares to celebrate its 40th year of teaching, he discusses the challenges of the present and plans for the future.

Q: You were raised in Tennessee, attended a Christian college (Carson-Newman College in Tennessee), got a master's in divinity, a doctorate in philosophy and are considered an expert on philosopher George Santayana. How did that background prepare you to be a college president?

A: Good question, in a way sort of ironic, particularly with George Santayana. In 1912 Santayana retired from Harvard University because he thought Harvard was becoming too businesslike and therefore not fostering student learning and faculty scholarship. Keeping that in mind, I think, has given me a clear focus on what one does as a president and what one does at a college or university; that your principal focuses are student learning and faculty scholarship.

Q: As the founding editor of a 20-volume series on Santayana, what was it about him you found so interesting? And how has his philosophy influenced your own?

A: Santayana is a fascinating person: Spanish-American philosopher born in Spain, came to Boston when he was 9 years old, finished his schooling there and then went to Harvard and then taught at Harvard until 1912. One of the most significant features about Santayana's view is that there are certain conditions for living that you could call material conditions, and the college, university and business would be the financial conditions and the physical structures that make life possible. But that doesn't explain the value of life or what makes it worthwhile. And so, one of the central tenets of Santayana's outlook is simply: If you want to talk about the value of life then you look at something beyond just the material conditions for living to the values found in art, in the way you think, in human relationships, in the community you build and the values in those communities.

Q: What attracted you to Richard Stockton College?

A: I fell in love with it, I think, is the simplest explanation. I did not know much about Richard Stockton, or for that matter, the Jersey Shore. And so when I found that I was nominated, I contacted a couple of presidents in the area, talked with them, and then came for a visit. (I) stayed at Seaview, incidentally, on the visit and then went to Cape May, came back along the shore and decided to come over to the campus and look at it. Incredible campus, in such a natural parklike setting with all the lakes and pathways and trees and so on, just absolutely drop-dead gorgeous. And then what really was the turning point was meeting the faculty, staff, and students; faculty dedicated to student learning and a real focus on students themselves and the opportunities they can give to students.

Q: When you arrived, you talked a lot about creating partnerships and expanding Stockton's presence in the community. How well would you believe that has been accomplished, and what more would you like to do?

A: I would like to do a lot more. But we have done a number of things already. We've built the community partnerships in Atlantic City and the region. We have the Noyes Museum, Dante Hall, the Carnegie Center in A.C., we are expanding to Hammonton and southern Ocean County in Manahawkin and the southern part of this area. I think there is a sense in which a college can be seen sort of like a wheel: where the college is the hub and neutral group in which you then have spokes that go out to the various parts of the community. And the college is that which brings those community elements together, on neutral grounds for discussions, for building programs that work well together and providing economic development for the area, as well as, probably the most significant thing we do is, we provide alumni who live in the area and take leadership roles in the area.

Q: Stockton has been primarily an undergraduate liberal-arts college. Since you arrived, there has also been more emphasis on expanding graduate programs. How do you see the college evolving academically? Should it become more like a university?

A: No. Think of the College of William and Mary, Dartmouth College - they have graduate programs, doctorate programs, medical schools, etc. but they keep the name ‘college.' And the reason they keep the name ‘college' is the focus is on teaching and on the students. Often there is a standing story about universities: How do you define the difference between college and university? A university is one that has lost sight of students, and the college keeps the focus on the students. So even though we are growing, expanding ... the focus here and one of the reasons for retaining the name ‘college' is that our focus is on students and providing opportunities to students. We have grown. But part of the Stockton spirit that's been here since our founding is that one feels at home here, that faculty members know the students' names, that you know the families of the students and there is an incredible spirit on the campus that is homelike. You know that people can feel comfortable with each other, where you can address issues that are difficult issues, sometimes, but you do it with respect and joy.

Q: All of the state colleges, all colleges everywhere, are under pressure to control tuition and fees. Stockton is also in a period of costly expansion. How do you reconcile the two?

A: When I first came, one of my surprises was that New Jersey doesn't provide funding for buildings. The last bond issue in New Jersey for higher education was 1988. When we did a physical assessment of the campus we found ... we were 400,000 square feet short of the space needed to accommodate the students and the faculty that we had at the time I came. So clearly, we had to think about what we were going to do about that. I sought out an investment fund that's dedicated to buildings and capital expansion. That fund grew in a significant way since the eight years that I have been here. Out of that fund we were able to purchase Seaview (Resort). We were also able to build the fund so that when we take out debt ... the earnings off of that investment fund offsets the debt service on the bonds. So we have done this in a very thoughtful way, and a very responsible way. So the impact on students is considerably lessened, even though we are really expanding our offerings to students.

Q: The new $65 million Campus Center is very impressive. Why does a state college need such a showpiece structure?

A: You need it for your students and you need it for the community. Our students never had something like this. The buildings were built mostly in the 1970s, 1980s. ... We have added a few buildings since then. But there was never really a central part of the campus. Here, finally, we have a reception area where students and parents can come for admissions, where if there is any issue that a student needs (help with), there is one place to come. The important thing about it is, by having this we are vacating other spaces on campus and therefore can create faculty offices, classrooms, and other facilities that serve our students very well.

Q: Parking tends to be one of the biggest issues, biggest complaints. What is the future of parking at Stockton?

A: I tell the students they are not going to get a lot of sympathy from me about parking. They get a little (sympathy), but not a lot. I came from campuses where there were genuinely parking problems. One campus, Texas A&M, five miles long, even if you got a spot and got on the shuttle you'd be 30 to 45 minutes from your first class. At Stockton there is no place on the campus that you are not more than five to 10 minutes walking to a building. We have a shuttle that runs back and forth. No time of the day is our North parking lot full. So one can always park there and there is a shuttle that runs back and forth. Besides, it's healthy to walk. And we have more than enough parking spaces for the cars and the students that are here. We eventually want to put up parking garages. When we do that, then we will be able to complete the quad where the campus center is and the science building comes out to the side and we will have on the other side of that another academic building and a quad and a really new entrance to the campus.

Q: What has been your greatest challenge?

A: I think my greatest challenges have been the surprises of the very low state support for higher education. We live in a state that provides significant support for K through 12 - reportedly one of the top states for support of K through 12 - and yet we are the bottom of the list, or very close to it, for support for higher education. That is a real surprise, for a sophisticated state like New Jersey to not put a priority on higher education. So the challenge is: how do you live and how do you flourish in a state that desperately needs more higher education, more capacity for students, and do so in a way that is financially responsible?

Q: What has surprised you since you've been here?

A: The other very pleasant surprise is just how well the communities work together. A good example is when we had the hurricane evacuees show up on campus, 15 minutes notice, no support coming from any place else. And yet all the important elements - Stockton, AtlantiCare, Galloway Township, the Governor's Office - all came together. We were supposed to have 100 or so (people) for a couple of hours; we had 900 plus for nine hours. And it was not just the group working together but the community spirit that was there.

Q: What has been your greatest disappointment?

A: Oh boy, I don't know that I've had a greatest disappointment, quite frankly. We are about to launch our comprehensive campaign, (which) I think is going to be very successful. The 21st of September we will announce our goal. I think we are a young college and we haven't advanced very far in terms of development - raising external funds (is) probably going to be one of our bigger challenges. In terms of disappointments, I honestly can't think of any.

Q: How much longer do you plan to serve as Stockton's president, and what more do you want to accomplish?

A: Well, there is a lot more to accomplish. And the nice thing is that one recognizes that no one person accomplishes things in any institution or community. So everything is a team effort. My father worked full time until he was 76. I'm not quite there yet, and I'm not quite sure I want to work until I'm 76 - I am 68 now - but I'm going to be here for a while.

Q: Did you plan such a long-term commitment to Stockton?

A: I did, actually. You can't accomplish much unless you have been some place for at least six years. So somewhere between your sixth and 10th year are your greatest accomplishments. At Stockton we've done a lot of what I might call internal changes and accomplishments. Sixty percent of the faculty that are here now have come since I came in 2003. We've changed the academic programs in a significant way, added ... a lot of graduate programs, but we've also added a lot of undergraduate programs. We've built buildings and facilitated educational programs and we added this incredible outreach to the community. Much of that, it took some time to build. Studies show that if you don't stay in a place six to eight years, you really have an incomplete career. After that you really need to begin thinking what's the next step and what keeps you energized and what keeps the campus going. The nice thing about Stockton is that we put together a strategic plan called 2020 ... so there is a lot to be done between now and 2020 in terms of buildings, outlooks, programs, facilitating work of faculty and the opportunities for students.

Q: What would you like your legacy to be?

A: The best way to answer that question is to ask someone 30 or 40, 50 years from now what their legacy is. I think it's not complicated. What I really would like is for my legacy to be that I made good judgments about facilitating the opportunities for student learning and for faculty scholarship.

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