With Eye on Legislative Purse Strings, Public University Board Promotes Former Rep

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The board of trustees of Salem State University voted 7-3 on May 24 to elevate John Keenan, a lifelong resident of Salem, former state rep and former House chair of a powerful legislative committee, to the presidency of the university.  The job pays around a quarter-of-a-million dollars a year. Since leaving the legislature in 2014, Keenan has been serving as the university’s general counsel and vice president for administration. 

Before Keenan can assume the presidency, the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education must vote to confirm his election, a vote that may take place at the board’s next monthly meeting.
Keenan served in the legislature for 10 years and was a force to be reckoned with.  He was a smart, strategic and at times audacious lawmaker.  Friendly, direct, and never tricky or pompous, he was an easy person to like and get along with on Beacon Hill.   

I admire Keenan for the political vision and touch he displayed as House chair of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications and Energy on a number of issues -- and never more so than when he engineered the legislative approvals for a legal mechanism by which the City of Salem is receiving millions of dollars in state funding over a multi-year period to cushion the loss of property tax revenue occasioned by the closing of an ancient coal-burning power plant.  I shamelessly suggest that you read a post I wrote on how that arrangement came to be in the summer of 2012:

Keenan, age 52, has been blessed with considerable brainpower.  He’s an honor’s graduate of Harvard and Suffolk University Law School, where he served on the law review.  What Keenan is not is a professional scholar or a career college administrator.  Salem State is the first and only university he’s worked at.  
In choosing Keenan, the school’s trustees acknowledged the institution’s ultimately defining and inescapable dependence upon the Massachusetts legislature for the dollars it needs to stay afloat and to make continuous improvements.  Here’s what they must have been thinking when they bypassed female and minority presidential finalists with deeper and wider experience in higher ed:

No money, no mission.
The pro-Keenan vote of May 24 pointed to an unspoken board consensus that he’s the best available person to bring the bacon home from Boston. Public university trustees are practical souls.

The trustees were breaking no new ground when they prioritized political heft in their presidential search.   Think David Bartley, the former House speaker who became president of Holyoke Community College.  Think Senate President William Bulger and Congressman Marty Meehan who became presidents of the UMass system. 
The Boston Globe’s Michael Levenson reported yesterday that, of the 29 public higher education institutions in Massachusetts, only eight are headed by women, and that only seven of the 29 are minorities, [“Salem St. selection sparks debate. White male tapped to be president,” 5-30-17]. 

Sadly, the Globe article stated that the 10 Salem trustees voting on the new president were divided along racial lines: the seven Caucasian trustees voted for Keenan; the three trustees of color voted for Anny Morrobel-Sosa, a native of the Dominican Republic who’s worked in the top administrative tier at several prominent universities.   In the world of higher education or anywhere else, this is always disturbing.

The odds favor Keenan when the Board of Higher Education votes on confirming him.   Over time, I think the controversy in Salem surrounding his election will fade as he works sincerely and open-heartedly and indefatigably to be a champion of every student, faculty and staff member.  But it will take years – decades! -- to address and put to rest the justifiable concerns expressed about the gender and racial make-up of the state university presidents’ group.
Equality with a capital “E” is the great unfinished task of this state and nation. 

The energy evoked by the pursuit of Equality has the potential to renew Massachusetts and the United States.  There will be no new lease on the life of America if that pursuit is unsuccessful.
ADDENDUM:  The leadership of Salem State University must have anticipated at least some of the opposition and controversy generated by the selection of Keenan as the institution’s 14th president.  The university press release on the selection (dated May 24) included a lengthy section at its end under the subheading “About John D. Keenan, JD.”  Seeing it as both a legitimate tribute to the man and an exemplary product of public relations, I am reprinting that section in its entirety:

“A lifelong resident of Salem and former Massachusetts state representative, John Keenan was one of the lead proponents in gaining ‘university’ status for Salem State in 2010.  John was also the lead sponsor of the bill providing sabbatical parity for all state university faculty.  A proud product of Salem Public Schools and first-generation-to-college, John is a cum laude graduate of Harvard College (Economics) and Suffolk University Law School where he served as Lead Articles Editor on the Law Review.  Suffolk faculty recognized John with the prestigious Leo J. Memorial Award as the student who most advanced the civic and professional responsibilities of a lawyer.  In 2015, John attended the Harvard Graduate School of Education Institute for Educational Management.
“As state representative John developed extensive expertise in public construction projects helping to deliver $290 million in capital funding for Salem projects, including the SSU Frederick E. Berry Library and Learning Commons, J. Michael Ruane Judicial Center, Salem MBTA Station and the Thaddeus Buczko Probate Court.  He was also the leading proponent of the billion dollar Footprint Power redevelopment of Salem Harbor Station, the largest project in Salem’s almost 400-year history.  At Salem State, John utilized this expertise to help fund and recently complete the magnificent Sophia Gordon Center for the Creative and Performing Arts.

“Prior to his election as state representative, John served as an assistant district attorney in Essex County and was a member of that office’s first Domestic Violence Unit.  John served in the administration of Mayor Neil Harrington and Mayor Stanley Usovicz as Salem city solicitor.  John joined Salem State in 2014, and as the university’s inaugural General Counsel, he is responsible for oversight of all legal matters.  With his background in domestic violence, John helps lead SSU’s Title IX team that deals with both the prevention and investigation of sexual assaults on campus.  As a result of John’s efforts, in January 2017, Salem State hosted the National Center for Campus Public Safety’s Training on Trauma-Informed Sexual Assault Investigation and Adjudication.  Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey also participated to bring attention to this national problem.
“At SSU, John is responsible for the university’s day-to-day operations in support of its academic mission.  He has oversight of capital planning and facilities, human resources and equal opportunity, information technology, risk and asset management, and university police.  Under John’s leadership the university just completed the North Campus Precinct Study, which provides a blueprint for SSU’s next decade of capital projects.  Lastly, he oversees the maintenance of appropriate internal controls consistent with the rules and regulations of the state and the board of trustees.  John is an active participant on campus, being a panelist on issues such as climate change and freedom of speech.  John welcomes the opportunity to advise aspiring public servants and students interested in pursuing law school.  John is also a member and active participant in both the New England Council of Counsel and the National Association of College and University Attorneys.

“John resides in Salem with his wife, Kara McLaughlin, and their two children, Aidan and Erin.  John’s community service includes being past president of the Salem Education Foundation.  He presently serves both on the Salem Award Foundation and on the advisory board of the Anti-Defamation League.  An avid bike rider in the summer, John has participated in the Pan Mass Challenge for the last quarter century, raising over $160,000 for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute.”

ADDENDUM: The Board of Higher Education voted unanimously on Tuesday, June 20, to approve John Keenan's appointment as president of Salem State.

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