The decision by Salem State trustees to choose a white male former state representative as the new president of the university has disappointed some faculty and ignited a simmering debate about the lack of gender and racial diversity in the top ranks of public higher education.
To critics, the selection of John D. Keenan fit a troubling pattern of trustees at Massachusetts public colleges and universities turning to well-known local politicians to serve as presidents, rather than outside candidates with more experience in education.
The pick has also taken on larger significance because Keenan, if his selection is approved by the state Board of Higher Education next month, will replace Patricia Meservey, who was the only female president of the state’s nine public universities.
Overall, eight women currently serve as presidents of the 29 public higher education institutions in Massachusetts, and just seven of the presidents are people of color, according to the Eos Foundation, a nonprofit that is seeking to diversify the leadership ranks.
A faculty survey showed 71 percent of Salem State’s professors and librarians hoped the board would pick Anny Morrobel-Sosa, a chemist born in the Dominican Republic who has experience as a researcher, professor, and college administrator.
She served from 2012 to 2016 as provost and senior vice president of academic affairs at Lehman College, which is part of the City University of New York, and worked for five years before that as dean of the college of science at the University of Texas El Paso.
Keenan is a lifelong Salem resident and former city solicitor who served as a Democratic state representative from 2005 to 2014, when he resigned to become Salem State’s general counsel and vice president for administration.
“My personal response was serious disappointment,” said Pierre Walker, a professor of English who served on the presidential search committee. “You had two finalists, one who seems to me less qualified and is a white male, and one who is thoroughly qualified and happens to be female and Hispanic, and the choice went to the less qualified white male.”
Adding to the tension around the pick, last Wednesday’s 7-3 vote by the board of trustees broke down along racial lines, Walker said. The seven white members backed Keenan while the three non-white members voted for Morrobel-Sosa, he said. That divide upset supporters of Morrobel-Sosa who pointed out that 29 percent of Salem State’s students are minorities, making it the most diverse of the nine state universities in Massachusetts.
“It just doesn’t look good,” said James Gubbins, president of the faculty union. “We are working hard to have our faculty and staff reflect the diversity of our student body and the message is not the message we want to send. This choice is not reflective of the campus community.”
Even so, Gubbins said he has not heard any faculty complain about Keenan during the nearly three years the former state representative has worked on campus. “John is honest, he’s a good person, he’s a likable guy, and he’s a guy that gets stuff done,” Gubbins said.
Nicole Giambusso, a Salem State spokeswoman, said it would be inappropriate for Keenan to comment while his appointment is under consideration by the state Board of Higher Education, which is expected to vote on his nomination on June 20.
Keenan was selected from among 106 applicants from 37 states and three countries. During the selection process, he received the overwhelming support of local political figures, community leaders, and donors, said Paul Mattera, chairman of the board.
Trustees also considered Keenan’s tenure on Beacon Hill to be an asset in an era of tight budgets, Mattera said.
“John Keenan was viewed as being in the best position to engage the community in terms of fund-raising and to fight for Salem State’s share of limited state resources,” he said.
Keenan’s supporters also point out that as a state representative, he helped overhaul the sabbatical system for university faculty and cosponsored a bill that rebranded Salem State College as Salem State University.
“It was very hard for me personally to overlook his passion and his advocacy for the faculty and the campus and the state system,” said Amy Everitt, chairwoman of the health care studies department, who worked closely with Keenan on the sabbatical legislation.
Richard Freeland, who was the state’s commissioner of higher education from 2009 to 2015, said there is a tradition of picking legislators to serve as college presidents in Massachusetts because they have to lobby for funding and other resources.
He pointed out that Martin T. Meehan, a former congressman, was widely credited with transforming the University of Massachusetts Lowell into a competitive research institution with a global reach. He is now president of the entire UMass system.
“That makes it a complicated equation,” Freeland said. “There are good reasons to consider such a candidate, but there are also reasons to be wary.”
When Freeland was commissioner, he said, the state Board of Higher Education was given a voting role in presidential search processes in order to ensure that local trustees did not reflexively turn to familiar candidates with deep political ties.
“I had been concerned there was a bit of a pattern of locally focused searches, rather than searches for the strongest candidate with the strongest possible credentials for academic leadership,” Freeland said.
He added that he was not commenting on the Salem State selection process, which he has not followed.Michael Levenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.