Five and a half years ago, Harvey Kesselman was ready to say goodbye to the university where he had spent the last 44 years as a student, professor and administrator.
“He was in a difficult situation,” Stockton University Board of Trustees member Leo Schoffer explained.
Stockton had just learned its president, Herman Saatkamp, was resigning amid a flawed deal to purchase the Showboat casino and open a campus in Atlantic City. The board wanted Kesselman to stay on as the new president, but he already had accepted a position as president of the University of Southern Maine.
Schoffer and fellow board member Ray Ciccone invited Kesselman to breakfast at the Shore Diner to sway him away from leaving.
“In the old days in real estate, we used to make deals by signing napkins,” Schoffer explained. “I said, ‘Harvey, we’re not leaving here until you sign this napkin agreeing to stay at Stockton.’”
Kesselman wrote on the napkin, “I want to stay,” and the rest is history.
Kesselman lives and breathes Stockton, and why wouldn’t he? He has been a part of the college for so long he can remember back to its first day at the Mayflower Hotel in Atlantic City, before the Galloway Township campus was finished being built.
“This place has been extremely good to me, and I owe it for affording me the opportunity,” Kesselman said, seated below a replica of the seal of Stockton in a conference room inside the wood-clad walls of his office at the Galloway campus.
Since 2015, Kesselman, 69, of Hamilton Township, has served as the university’s president. He can quickly spout off some of his proudest moments in that time: the opening of the Atlantic City campus, being named an anchor institution for the region, and the university’srecent handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and social justice issues among them.
He also oversaw the opening of the second Unified Science Center in Galloway, the move of commencement to Boardwalk Hall, and visits from President-Elect Joe Biden, Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and social justice activist Shaun King.
When he took over the college, Kesselman said he was immediately cognizant of what the public perception a new deal to build a campus in Atlantic City would be, but felt he had to push forward.
“Showboat, conceptually, could have been incredible,” Kesselman said. “Had there not been the competing covenants and some of the other things that happened — it would have looked like a stroke of genius. But that’s what happens, sometimes things happen.”
He said he knew that if Stockton didn’t build in Atlantic City, another college would, and he didn’t want that to happen.
“I’ll never forget what I said, ‘It was Stockton’s mistake, we’ll own it and we’ll correct it,’” Kesselman said.
So he began networking for support, leading to a partnership with Atlantic County, South Jersey Gas and the Atlantic City Development Corporation for development of the Gateway Project on Albany Avenue.
A year later, in 2016, the state of New Jersey named Stockton an anchor institution for the Atlantic City region in hopes it would help revitalize the struggling economy here.
Not long after, deals were brokered to reopen the shuttered Taj Mahal casino as Hard Rock Hotel & Casino and Revel Casino as Ocean Casino Resort in the city, bringing hundreds of jobs back to the resort town.
“He has spearheaded a campus in Atlantic City, which came when Atlantic City was in its lowest point,” Ciccone said. “And that has had a really positive effect on the city. And we’ve already seen that part of the city growing from that organically. There are things popping up all around Stockton.”
Stockton’s Atlantic City campus formally opened in 2018 with an academic building and 500-unit beachfront dormitory.
For Kesselman, 2020 was going to be the year the university embarked on opening Phase II in Atlantic City, but those dreams were quickly dashed as the global COVID-19 pandemic forced the college to shut down campuses and transition to remote learning. The groundbreaking was postponed, funding was cut, and it was unclear what would happen next.
In the midst of the pandemic, another event would rattle the campus community — the death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police, which sparked a nationwide movement to address police brutality against people of color, including on Stockton’s campus.
“We’ve always had an active student population, but the social justice issues that our nation confronted this year was something different,” Kesselman said. “There was a real sense of awareness that had to happen.”
He couldn’t be more proud of how his students, particularly minority students, approached the issues and began a dialogue with administrators about the issues. In response, the board passed a resolution in July affirming its commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice.
“Until we can openly and candidly discuss it, it’s going to be there,” Kesselman said. “It took a lot of courage. ... Students want to be heard, so you have to create the forum for them to be heard.”
The last five years have included many other challenges for Stockton and Kesselman.
In August 2017, the university became embroiled in a national debate about statues amid removal of a bust of the college’s namesake Richard Stockton, a reported slave owner.
And just before the Atlantic City campus opened in summer 2018, Stockton was hit with several sexual assault lawsuits and calls for better protections for students who are victims of sexual misconduct. Those suits were settled last year.
But his colleagues say Kesselman is able to handle these moments because of his working-class upbringing and strong ties to the college.
“He’s a real born-and-bred Stockton person. He does his job so well because he has lived and breathed the Stockton philosophy,” Ciccone said.
Manish Madan, associate professor of criminal justice and president of the Stockton Faculty Senate, said he remembers when he was a new professor and Kesselman reached out personally to congratulate him for his role in organizing an education conference in India.
“You could feel he was very happy for you,” Madan said. “It really meant a lot.”
In the next few years, Kesselman hopes to continue, with the support of his Board of Trustees, to expand Stockton’s footprint in South Jersey, he said, proudly handing over a half-inch thick, spiral bound 2020 facilities master plan. Inside are plans for Stockton Phase III, expanded athletic facilities, housing and other amenities at the Galloway campus, and a concept called Main Street Stockton.
Kesselman said he has no plans to leave his post anytime soon, but hopes that when the time comes, he can transition back to his first love: being an educator.
“I want to end my career teaching here,” he said.