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Lawmaker is named to Salem State post

John KeenanHandout

Five months after state Representative John D. Keenan announced that he would not be seeking a sixth term on Beacon Hill, the Salem Democrat has landed a different public service role, one much closer to home.

He has been named Salem State University’s new vice president for administration.

Keenan, 49, is resigning his Seventh Essex District seat, effective Aug. 23, to assume the $180,000 position. Salem State president Patricia Maguire Meservey selected Keenan, a former city solicitor in Salem, from among three finalists.

“I’m absolutely thrilled,” Keenan said. “I told the president and the search committee that the more I looked at the job and its responsibilities, the most excited I got about it, because I realized it was a perfect match for the skills I’ve developed over the last 20 years in public life. And it’s a great opportunity to work in an institution [with] a wonderful team already in place.”

The vice president for administration will oversee capital planning and facilities, human resources, information technology, risk assessment, and the university police.

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Keenan said the post is also a good fit for him because of his strong belief in “the importance of public education and particularly higher education in our economy and what it means for people to be able to achieve financial success, raise a family, and have a good job.”

Salem State also recently named Karen House as its chief financial officer, effective Sept. 2. House, of Keene, N.H., is currently associate vice president for finance and planning at Keene State College.

Karen HouseHandout

Keenan and House are replacing Stanley P. Cahill, who retired in July as Salem State’s executive vice president, and Andy Soll, who retired last December as vice president of finance and administration. Because of a realignment of duties, new titles were assigned to the incoming administrators.

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Keenan’s selection concluded a four-month search. The list of nearly 50 applicants was winnowed down by a consultant and a search committee to four finalists, but one withdrew. The remaining finalists were interviewed at length by campus groups and individuals, including Meservey, said Tom Torello, vice president of marketing and communications and chairman of the search panel.

Meservey said she was impressed by Keenan’s ability to “look at our challenges in a strategic manner” and his “high energy to move forward and continue the important work we are doing.” His prominence as a local elected official did not give him any advantage in the hiring process, she said.

A graduate of Harvard College and Suffolk University Law School, Keenan served as an assistant Essex district attorney from 1993 to 1994, an assistant city solicitor in Salem from 1996 to 2001, and as city solicitor from 2001 to 2004.

Meservey said she did not view Kennan’s lack of experience in education as a hindrance, since his work will be on the business side of administering the campus, rather than the academic side. She pointed out that former US representative Martin T. Meehan has done well as chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Lowell, despite having no background in the field.

Among Keenan’s key tasks, Meservey said, is to focus on “enterprise risk management,” or examining potential challenges to the university. Another is to oversee development of the facilities at Salem State, which is in the midst of a flurry of building projects.

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Keenan, first elected to the State House in 2004, is part of a wave of departures of area lawmakers from the Legislature. At least 10 senators or representatives have resigned over the past year or have opted not to seek reelection.

In addition to giving up his legislative seat, for which he earns about $76,000 annually, Keenan is closing the law practice he has continued during his 10 years on Beacon Hill.

When he announced he was retiring, Keenan said it was a good time to leave because “we’ve accomplished what we wanted to have done in Salem,” citing completion of the new Salem courthouse, elevating Salem State to a university, construction of the MBTA garage, and paving the way for the planned gas-fired plant to replace Salem Harbor Power Station.

Keenan said this past week that he had no misgivings about his original decision to leave the House, observing that, coincidentally, on the day he accepted the Salem State job, contractors were beginning to dismantle the old power plant.

Keenan disclosed that he had applied last December to the state’s Judicial Nominating Committee for appointment as a district court judge, but withdrew his application when he decided to accept the Salem State post.

“This is a great opportunity for me to be in Salem as my kids are going through high school,” said Keenan, who with his wife, Kara, has two children.

Kimberley L. Driscoll, a graduate of Salem State University and the city’s mayor, said in a prepared statement: “Salem has been fortunate to have an advocate like John as our state representative for these past 10 years, and I’ve been fortunate to call him a colleague and a partner in public service for our city.”

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“While his presence on Beacon Hill will be missed, I’m very happy – for John, for SSU, and for Salem – that he will be transitioning to a new position where he can continue to play a positive role in making our community the best that it can be,” she added.


John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.