By Michael Aron
Chief Political Correspondent
Harvey Kesselman chatted with Senate leaders before the hearing today.
Kesselman became acting president of Stockton University on Tuesday, succeeding Herman Saatkamp who resigned under fire.
“Harvey, I can’t thank you enough that you’re willing to step into this pit,” said Sen. Jim Whelan.
The pit Whelan referred to is Stockton’s $18 million purchase of the Showboat Casino in December.
Stockton planned to put an urban campus there, but a covenant with the Taj Mahal next door requires that the Showboat can only be used for casino purposes, and Saatkamp either didn’t know that or thought he could get around it.
“I think it’s a great idea to have a full campus of Stockton in Atlantic City. The Showboat site could have worked, maybe it could still work. But you can’t buy a piece of ground or a building or anything without clear title. And that’s what happened here,” Whelan said.
“If you were the president at the time, would you have continued with this transaction?” asked Sen. Paul Sarlo.
“No, I would not have,” Kesselman said.
Kesselman said initially there was tremendous enthusiasm for turning the Showboat into a campus.
“We had already set up 25 to 30 courses for the summer. We had 60 courses ready for the fall. We had more than several hundred students signed up to move there, so it could have worked,” he said.
Saatkamp was president of Stockton for 12 years and presided over great expansion.
But after losing the confidence of the faculty last week over the Showboat deal, he announced his resignation effective Aug. 31.
Tuesday he made it effective immediately.
Stockton currently has 27 employees at the Showboat site at a cost of $400,000 a month.
“To sit here and learn that we’re spending $400,000 a month going out the door, we need a plan quickly. We need to stop the bleeding,” Sarlo said.
Kesselman was in the first Stockton class in 1971, has been there ever since, and is slated to become president of the University of Southern Maine July 1.
“I’ve been going pretty well nonstop from the moment it was announced I was acting president, particularly since I’m also incoming president at another university. Life changes very rapidly, sir,” Kesselman said.
Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian attended the hearing.
“A university is really critical for Atlantic City to move on, an institute of higher learning. It seemed like a perfect fit with Stockton, but if Stockton decides it’s not the fit, then I think we have to look at another institution,” Guardian said.
Glenn Straub, the developer who just bought the Revel casino, has offered to take the Showboat off Stockton’s hands for $26 million. But even if that happens, it’ll be too late for Saatkamp.
“This was a Stockton mistake. And we will own it. And we will come back with it corrected,” Kesselman said.