FORT KENT, Maine — University of Maine at Fort Kent President Wilson Hess said Tuesday he is stepping down from that post and retiring this fall.

“September is my target for retirement,” Hess said Tuesday morning. “When I came, I promised if my health held out, I’d do five years.”

Hess said he has been talking about his retirement with University of Maine System Chancellor James Page since last spring, and began serious discussions about it in March.

“The chancellor will be [at UMFK] on May 15 to talk about the future president,” Hess said. “My understanding is it is his intention to bring in an interim [president] for a year or so and he has that down to a short list.”

Hess expects Page will announce the interim president by the end of May or early in the summer.

“The chancellor will be [at UMFK] later this month talking to campus and community leaders about interim leadership,” Dan Demeritt, University of Maine System director of public affairs, said Tuesday. “There will be another president at UMFK.”

In January, Page announced a systemwide plan tagged, “One university for all of Maine,” with each of the system’s seven campuses focusing on mission-specific programs which make it stand out.

Page also said the system is looking to reduce and restructure administrative functions around the university system, but that apparently does not extend to campus presidents.

“A big piece of the ‘one university’ initiative is retaining a president at each university,” Demeritt said Tuesday. “Even as we move into that ‘one university’ model, there will be one leader on each campus and that leader will be a president.”

Demeritt would not comment on who the chancellor may name as an interim UMFK president, but did say that individual could come from within the state.

“We do have a track record of turning to known, Maine-based leaders,” he said. “We have a lot of success turning to Maine leaders to run our institutions on interim basis but I can’t speculate who [will be appointed] for UMFK yet.”

The University of Maine System just launched a search committee to find a permanent president at the University of Maine at Augusta.

“Presidential searches are time consuming and a lot of work,” Demeritt said. “We just got done at [the University of Southern Maine] and that took about nine months of work to complete the process.”

In March, Harvey Kesselman was named the new president of the University of Southern Maine.

“It is important to have strong leadership at each of the campuses,” said Sam Collins of Caribou, chairman of the University of Maine System Board of Trustees. “Each of the campuses is so important for their community.”

Hess has been at the helm of UMFK for five years and counts a boost in the campus’ enrollment among his chief accomplishments, with the campus looking at reaching a 2020 enrollment goal of 1,500 students four years early in 2016.

“Having been appointed with the express charge of leading a turnaround at an institution with declining enrollment, I leave with a sense of completion,” he said.

Over the last five years UMFK has seen a 24 percent growth in enrollment and currently has the largest undergraduate nursing program among Maine’s public universities, according to Demeritt.

In a release sent out Tuesday by Demeritt, Hess is credited with overseeing UMFK’s successful online degree program, early college high school program, strategic enrollment strategies and conversions to biomass-based energy and boosting fundraising efforts.

“It has been an honor to be part of the heritage of Maine’s public universities, of which I am an alumnus, and specifically to serve as the 10th president of the University of Maine at Fort Kent,” Hess said.

He said he informed UMFK faculty and staff of his retirement during a campuswide meeting Tuesday morning.

Hess may be retiring, but he said that does not necessarily mean he’s leaving UMFK.

On Tuesday, he said he is in negotiations with Page to edit the 50-year’s worth of documents donated to the university by Rep. John Martin who teaches political science at the campus in addition to serving as executive assistant to the president.

“President Hess has provided his campus and the entire St. John Valley with innovative and strong, community-focused leadership,” said University of Maine System Chancellor James Page. “From one of Maine’s northernmost points, Wilson has extended the reach and influence of the University of Maine at Fort Kent throughout Maine and well beyond. On behalf of the board of trustees and our colleagues at each of Maine’s universities, I want to thank Wilson for his many accomplishments, his leadership and the friendship that will persist long after he leaves office.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.