ORONO, Maine — Donald J. Farish, one of four finalists for the University of Maine presidency, casually leaned on the side of the lectern Thursday afternoon as he addressed a group of graduate students.
His dark suit hung neatly from his thin frame but instead of dress shoes, he wore hiking boots. When asked about them, Farish smiled, looked out the window at the looming snowbanks and replied, “I know where I am.”
Farish, 68, has been president of Rowan University, a small college in Glassboro, N.J., for the last 12 years, and said he doesn’t feel like he has anything left to prove professionally. What drew him to apply for the UMaine post was an opportunity to help share the future of public higher education.
“The system that we have now is not sustainable,” he said Thursday inside Wells Common on the Orono campus. “The question is how do we become more self-reliant while keeping the same standards.”
One way to do that, Farish said, is to increase fundraising efforts in the private sector. As public universities continue to see public funding decrease, they don’t have a choice but to reach out to successful alumni.
Farish’s hourlong session with graduate students on Thursday was part of two full days of meetings, interviews, tours and questions for the Canadian-born Harvard University graduate who has been in academia for four decades.
“He’s well-qualified, and he spoke honestly and openly,” said Patrick Spinney of Eastport, a doctoral candidate in electrical and computer engineering. “He wasn’t necessarily the most charismatic.”
Farish and the three other finalists are seeking to succeed current UMaine President Robert Kennedy, who is stepping down in June. The new president is expected to take over in early July.
The first finalist, James Page, CEO of Sewall Co. in Old Town, visited UMaine in late January. The other finalists: Paul Ferguson, vice president for academic affairs at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, and Daniel Julius, vice president for academic affairs at the University of Alaska System of Higher Education, will be on campus for interviews later this month.
Asked what he was looking for most in the next UM president, Spinney said strong leadership and an ability to work with students, faculty and system administrators.
Farish said he has no intention of preserving the status quo if he is selected to fill the UMaine presidency.
“I could retire, but I’ve been having too much fun,” he said. “I’m intrigued by the current challenges and opportunities facing the University of Maine.”
He touched upon the current financial difficulties facing UMaine. Although he seemed comfortable admitting what he didn’t know, he also easily rattled off statistics about UMaine’s graduation and enrollment rates.
Before taking the presidency at Rowan University in southern New Jersey, Farish spent 15 years at Sonoma State University in California, first as dean of the School of Natural Sciences and then as vice president and provost. Before that, he taught biology at the University of Rhode Island and was dean of the school’s College of Arts and Sciences.
He showed a dry sense of humor during one exchange Thursday with a UMaine graduate student who asked how the university could quell the tension between “hard sciences” such as biology and engineering and “soft sciences” such as business.
“Let me first ask what program are you in,” Farish said to laughter. When the student replied that he was a candidate for a master’s in business administration, Farish replied. “Well, that changes my answer completely.”
Still, he answered the question.
“The role of humanities and liberal arts has never been more important,” he said. “The value of those skills, of critical thinking and synthesis can carry forward easily into other facets of life. More specific skills can become outdated quickly.”
Farish will continue meeting with students, staff and community members on Friday and then will finish his visit by meeting with University of Maine System Chancellor Richard Pattenaude.
For information about the search process and the four finalists, visit the Presidential Search Committee’s home page at http://umaine.edu/presidentsearch/.