THERE WERE 106 applicants from 37 states and three countries. But in typical Massachusetts fashion, the global search for the next president of Salem State University ended up in the school’s backyard — with the board of trustees choosing John D. Keenan, a lifelong Salem resident and former state representative.
If, as expected, the state Board of Higher Education approves the trustees’ choice, Keenan will succeed Patricia Meservey, the only female president of the state’s nine public universities.
Keenan is not unqualified. A graduate of Harvard and Suffolk University Law School, he served in the state Legislature from 2005 to 2014. He resigned to become Salem State’s general counsel and vice president for administration. However, his status as Beacon Hill insider ultimately helped him beat out a female finalist with a more diverse cultural background and a stronger academic portfolio. The Salem business and political establishment backed one of their own because they believed he could deliver on the money front. As Salem Witch Museum CEO Biff Michaud observed, according to the Salem News, at the public meeting at which the choice for president was debated, “An institution like this, it runs on cash. John Keenan knows all the players.”
“Finances as a whole” influenced the decision regarding Salem State’s next president, said Nicole Giambusso, director of public relations. “Like all universities, Salem State uses debt to finance buildings and other assets to provide what is needed for our mission,” she said. “As of June 30, 2016, we had a balance of $43.4 million in bonds payable over the next 30 years on our balance sheet. In addition, the Massachusetts State College Building Association issues bonds for facilities they own on our campus, such as the residence halls and the parking garage. We are responsible for payments to MSCBA, which they use to repay that debt.”
Thinking it takes a former lawmaker to squeeze money for higher education out of current lawmakers became an article of faith after David Bartley left as speaker of the House in 1975 and became president of Holyoke Community College, a position he held for nearly 30 years. William M. Bulger’s appointment as president of the University of Massachusetts in 1996 followed a 35-year career as a state lawmaker, including 18 as Senate president. Bulger left UMass in 2003, after fallout from his loyalty to his brother, crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger, but his fund-raising prowess in that position is still admired. Martin T. Meehan, a former congressman, transformed the University of Massachusetts Lowell into a competitive research institution and parlayed that success into his current job as president of the UMass system.
As long as Beacon Hill’s backslapping culture prevails, political connections will take precedence over scholarly credentials and academic vision. That, in turn, means public higher education in Massachusetts will have a very local look in an increasingly global society. The problem isn’t that Keenan is the wrong choice for Salem State; the problem is that in Massachusetts, in 2017, he’s still the right choice.