GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Interim President Harvey Kesselman comfortably worked the room, shaking hands with students at the Stockton University Student Senate barbecue, taking time to ask where they are from, what their majors are and why they chose Stockton.
He gave a short welcome, joking that he knows enough not to get between college students and food.
Kesselman, 64, has only been interim president since Sept. 1, but it’s a job he’s been preparing for his entire 35-year career at Stockton. He arrived as one of the first 1,000 students in the brand new Stockton State College in 1971. The campus is his second home.
The chairman of the state commission who recommended an emergency manager for Atlantic City,…
As the acting, and now interim, president, his appointment as permanent president is not a done deal. Kesselman makes no secret he wants the job and many on campus hope he gets it. If the trustees want to do a national search, he says with a grin, he is confident he can beat the competition.
In the meantime he is turning Stockton into the university he believes it can be. He already has a committee working on a new mission statement.
“I want us to be a premier public institution,” he said.
Stockton may be a public university, but it’s also Kesselman’s baby, one he has helped raise from infancy to university status.
Stockton also nurtured him, from a long-haired student in jeans to the president’s office, where he has hung a portrait of the old Mayflower Hotel in Atlantic City, site of his first Stockton classes.
The youngest of four children, his mother finished high school, but his father left school after eighth grade. He was the first in his family to attend college, and talks about wanting current students to have the same opportunities he had: first-rate academics, a nurturing environment, community involvement.
He first passion is teaching, his motto “Students First.” His enthusiasm is infectious.
“He is someone who really, truly loves Stockton,” said senior Maurice Brandon, 25, of Atlantic City, who has been mentored by Kesselman. “Making him president is one of the best things that has happened here. He is the history of Stockton.”
It has been a tumultuous year for Stockton since the ill-fated purchase of the former Showboat Casino and plans to convert it into an Island Campus imploded in a controversy over dueling use covenants. Herman Saatkamp resigned as president in April.
Kesselman, then second in command as provost and executive vice president, had planned to leave to become president of the University of Southern Maine.
Then, after all the farewell parties were held, Stockton’s board of trustees asked him to stay, and he agreed.
“I wanted to be very careful that it would be their decision to stay,” Board of Trustees President Madeleine Deininger said of Kesselman and his wife of 33 years, Lynne, also a Stockton alumna. “But, boy, are we grateful.”
“This is my family,” Kesselman said. “I love this place.”
In a way, Stockton was made for Kesselman. He had been accepted to Rutgers. But one of Stockton’s founding administrators, Chuck Tantillo, convinced him to try the brand new state college that didn’t even yet have a campus.
“He would stop to get gas where I was working and tell me I should come to Stockton,” Kesselman said. “I liked the concept of being at a place that was going to be experimental. The motto ‘Plant Yourself Where You Can Grow’ really resonated with me.”
Kesselman also liked that Stockton was a place that would treat students like adults, giving them a say in how it was run.
Deininger, a 1980 graduate of Stockton, said Kesselman has always been charismatic, calling him the “Pied Piper of Stockton.”
“He had a beard and long hair, and he’d be walking really fast, and there were always students gathered around him,” she said.
The beard and long hair are gone, but Kesselman still moves fast and is legendary for his long hours, boundless energy, and 5 a.m. (now 4 a.m.) emails.
“I don’t sleep a lot,” he admits.
A resident of Mays Landing, where he and Lynne raised their children, Megan and Aaron and daughter Danielle from a previous marriage, Kesselman served on the Board of Education and the Township Committee, where he held public strategic planning meetings to get residents’ input on township priorities.
The children excelled in school and sports. Lynne and Harvey spent hours in their Toyota Highlander driving to practices and meets and games.
Megan was valedictorian of her class at Oakcrest High School, where the Kesselmans helped start the crew program. Aaron graduated from a high school in New Hampshire with a national championship ice hockey team. Both attended Princeton University. Danielle has a law degree from Rutgers.
Lynne, a former day trader who left to fulfill a dream of teaching, was named New Jersey’s recipient of the national American Star of Teaching Award in 2008. She has a bachelor’s degree in business and a master’s in Instructional Technology from Stockton and jokes that she has two Stockton degrees while her husband just has one.
She has given up her teaching career, but has already begun a Women in Philanthropy project as Stockton’s First Lady.
Kesselman loves a challenge. Vice President of Student Affairs Thomasa Gonzalez noted in a speech she gave on Kesselman that one of his pet phrases is “Fix it.”
His popularity on campus — he got a standing ovation at the fall faculty meeting — comes from his ability to take charge in a crisis while also bringing others into the process, the shared governance model prized by faculty. He views leadership as the ability to empower others.
“There are a lot of ways to do things,” he said. “I’m okay with that. It doesn’t always have to be my way.”
Kesselman said he never planned a career at Stockton, but new opportunities kept coming up that were too interesting to pass up.
“I’ve loved every job I had here,” he said.
Now that he’s in the best job, his focus is on the future. That includes selling Showboat, building new academic and science buildings scheduled to break ground this year, a new county dispatch center, and ongoing issues with housing and parking.
Stockton Federation of Teachers president Anne Pomeroy said Kesselman is providing stability at a crucial time for Stockton, and while there may still be discussions of how to decide a permanent president, he would certainly be a top choice.
“There is tremendous love for Harvey on the campus,” she said. “He has loads and loads of support. But we still would not want the board to just make a unilateral position to keep him.”
Kesselman said Stockton trained him to be its president and cites all four former presidents as mentors. He still remembers the second president, Peter Mitchell, coming to his office in 1981 and saying, “Young man, a number of individuals are very interested in your future at Stockton.”
“I really have no worries that I won’t be successful,” Kesselman said. “I am trained and prepared.”