Wednesday, January 16th, 2019

From Brandeis to Egypt to Maine

Posted on April 28, 2008 in News
By Sarah Trent

When you talk to Selma Botman about budgets and 26 programs and community and university morale, her eyes glaze over. It’s not that she isn’t interested, and she’s certainly articulate – it’s just that autopilot has kicked in.

Botman is moving into the USM president’s house in Gorham on July 1 to begin her new role as USM’s queen bee – but in the meantime, she’s still working out of the City University of New York’s chancellor’s office, which means that she isn’t yet immersed in the daily goings-on of USM.

When she came to Maine a few weeks ago to talk at a local USM-related meeting, I snagged the chance to sit down with her, hoping to introduce her to Free Press readers in a way that other publications had not yet attempted.

Realizing that at this point her policy ideas can only be that – ideas – we wanted to know more about who she is, and how that in itself will shape those ideas, and therefore the university.

I met her in the president’s house – her new house – which is tucked away next to the art gallery on the Gorham campus. The place hasn’t been lived in since Richard Pattenaude left his post last year.

I made the mistake of opening our interview with questions everyone has asked before, the same ones I was hoping to avoid – on budgets, 26 programs, community and university morale.

She was quick to apologize that she doesn’t have all the answers yet – but didn’t seem annoyed at my asking how she might deal with retention or what her thoughts are on interim President Joe Wood’s attempt to leave her with a fiscally ‘clean slate.’

In fact, she said she’s grateful for Wood’s “very serious cost containment process,” and said that focusing on graduation, rather than retention, is what best serves the goals of students.

But, like I said, at these kinds of questions, she seemed a little bit glazed.

So in what did she seem interested?

Well, true to her word (which says she’s very much interested in students), it did seem that she was primarily interested in me.

As she walked down the white-carpeted stairs and stepped onto the white-carpeted floor, her heels sank in. In a simple skirted suit, her face lit up when she saw me waiting for her in the barely furnished living room.

I got a handshake and a warm, welcoming smile, as she very neatly took her place on the couch next to me.

Until I looked down at my notebook, I had almost forgotten that I was a reporter. She seemed more like a long-lost aunt, someone I’d be expecting a hug from, rather than that handshake.

And so we proceeded as quickly as possible through the “business” portion of the interview – budgets, 26 programs, etc. (because it looks bad when we borrow quotes from the Press Herald), but I was glad to sit back and ask her the question that was really on my mind.

How, of all possible paths in life, did she end up becoming a university president?

The glazed look went away.

As an undergrad, Botman went to Brandeis. She majored in psychology, but found that “once I’d completed the requirements, I didn’t want to be in psychology.”

She cites the ’70s and their upheaval as giving her a sort of chance to find out who she was.

At Brandeis was a professor whom Botman came to admire. Deeply passionate for academic scholarship but also a mother and someone who cared for her students, this professor struck a chord.

“I wanted to be her,” said Botman, “that’s what I want to do.”

By that point she had also developed an interest in the Middle East, so she dug her feet into the sand and rooted herself in academia, went to Oxford to study the Middle East and on to Harvard following the same path.

The road took her several times into Egypt on an American Research Center Fellowship, and eventually she became a professor of Middle Eastern studies and history.

She said that her study and travels were one of the most fulfilling parts of her life.

While teaching at Holy Cross University, Botman moved quickly from the ranks of a tenured professor into more administrative roles, becoming the chair-elect of the political science department and the director of the international studies program.

Just a few years later, she found herself on the administration of the UMass System, involved in academic affairs while maintaining full professorship.

She moved up in the UMass System and moved to the CUNY system, where she currently serves as the executive vice chancellor and university provost.

She continued to teach as she could, because one, she really likes the students and teaching the Middle East, and two, “it kept my feet on the ground. It brought me closer to the faculty.”

After a few years at CUNY, she decided in 2007, on something of a whim to apply for one job – and she got it. Her daughter, who recently graduated from Bates, had introduced her to Maine, and Botman fell in love with the place and its people, whom she praises as having a “high level of civility.”

When she found out that USM was searching for a president, she applied.

“The serendipity of life,” she calls it – and now she’s here, starting in July amidst what administrators have been calling “a mess.”

So how might her knowledge of the Middle East help her in sorting through USM? And with training in history, how will Botman help USM look toward its future?

“The Middle East is a region of some turmoil,” she said. “Being able to understand that there’s justice in a lot of areas of the Middle East lets me operate in a collaborative way, looking for commonalities, not differences.”

And, she adds, “if you can navigate the Middle East, surely you can navigate a university.”

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