For two and a half hours each morning, Selma Botman gets to be alone.
The USM president rises each day at 6 a.m., exercises on a stationary bike, eats a healthy breakfast — either yogurt or cereal — drinks a “huge” latte and reads three newspapers online.
“It takes me a long time to get out of the house in the morning. I read the papers, I might answer an e-mail or two,” she said.
She values this time — between overseeing fundraising for a new $30 million performance venue in Gorham and figuring out how to implement the restructuring of USM, it’s usually the only chance she gets to collect her thoughts.
Botman, who has been president of USM for almost two years, has been the public face and leader of a university struggling to reinvent itself in the face of budgetary problems stemming from declining state aid, flat or declining enrollment and a student retention rate of about 68 percent.
In her time as president, Botman has undertaken a massive reorganization effort to stem this tide. Her decisions haven’t all been popular. Last year, she cut the university’s day care program and eliminated Lifeline, a community fitness program used by mainly older members of the community. She also consolidated student services, resulting in the layoffs of six people who later claimed age bias.
This semester, she approved a plan to consolidate USM’s eight colleges into five, which will result in the elimination of three deans positions and eight department heads. The debate over the consolidation has at time been contentious; some faculty have scoffed at the plan, which they say threatens the identity of USM’s individual programs.
But Botman has stood behind each decision, and held several town meetings when the state legislature announced mid-year cuts for the university system. She organized a series of meetings this semester called “convocations.” She encouraged people to weigh in on the university’s future. And by most accounts, she listened.
Last Friday was pretty much an average day for Botman. She had three speaking engagements, a meeting with Meg Weston, the vice president of advancement, and hours of work to do in her office on the seventh floor of the law building on the Portland campus.
She spoke at Thinking Matters, a showcase for student research at the Sullivan gym, and at a scholarship award ceremony for business students in the Talbot Auditorium.
She ate at the Cumberland Club, a private club for local business leaders of which the university is a member. Botman said she only takes “special guests” there. The waiter predicted her order: a tossed salad with grilled salmon, no onions and balsamic vinaigrette on the side.
Later in the afternoon, she took a moment in between events to read and respond to e-mails on her Blackberry in the hallway outside the Osher Map Library. Botman said she’s addicted to the device, which is both a blessing and a curse. She has another cell phone, called “the mummy phone” that she uses only for talking with her family.
Botman said she gets dozens of e-mails every week from students and their families, and from the general community. Sometimes families plead with her to expedite the financial aid process, or to help a student get more award money.
“We try our best to help everyone,” she said.
Botman, 59, grew up in Chelsea, Massachusetts, a “very poor city” just north of Boston. Neither of her parents attended college. Her father, a shoe factory worker, had an eighth grade education; her mother graduated from high school.
But her parents encouraged her and her two brothers to get college degrees. It paid off – all three ended up earning PhDs.
“My parents promoted the importance of education, and they just expected their children would be smart,” she said.
Botman graduated from Brandeis University with a degree in psychology, though she said she had no interest in the field. “I was trying to figure out who I was when I was an undergraduate. I thought psychology would help me do that,” she said, echoing the experiences of many USM undergrads who change majors several times during their college career.
During this time, she developed an interest in the Middle East. She said by the time she realized what she wanted to study she was too far along in her degree to change majors, so she went to Oxford University in England to get a master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies.
Afterwards, she returned to the U.S. to attend Harvard, where she earned another master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies, and a PhD in history and Middle Eastern studies.
Botman has written three books on the Middle East; her research has focused on Egypt in particular.
Her career in higher education began at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA, where she taught in the political science department.
“I’ve had a really satisfying career. And I really did enjoy the classroom, but I realized that I could affect more people if I went into academic administration,” she said.
Botman took a job working as Provost at UMass, and then as Executive Vice Chancellor and University Provost of City University of New York, where she oversaw 23 academic units across all five boroughs. She worked at CUNY for four years, and said she loved the excitement of Manhattan, and being close to her two daughters, who live together in the city and work on the business side of the fashion industry.
But she wasn’t totally satisfied working in a university system office. “I really wanted to come back to a campus, because I wanted to be closer to faculty and students,” she said.
Her move to Maine was somewhat serendipitous. Her youngest daughter Megan, then a student at Bates College in Lewiston, recommended she and her husband, Tom Birmingham, visit Peak’s Island. Botman and Birmingham went for a bike ride there, and ended up buying a small house. Two months later, the president’s position at USM opened up.
When Botman walked into her new job in July of 2009, she found herself dealing with the fallout of an $8.2 million budget deficit left in the wake of former President Rich Pattenaude, who is now the Chancellor of the University of Maine System. The Board of Trustees lent USM the money to bridge the gap, but the school had to restructure and make cuts.
“The systems were not always transparent or efficient,” she said of the previous accounting processes. “In previous years, people didn’t really have true budgets to work with. We’re actually still not there, but we’ve made huge progress,” she said.
When she took over, Botman said she didn’t really know what she was walking into.
“I didn’t know that we really didn’t know where all the money was being spent because the systems weren’t good enough,” she said. “As a new president, that was a real challenge for me, because I didn’t know the university well enough. That’s something you can’t tell by reading materials.”
And the financial crash in the fall of 2008 didn’t help matters.
“I also didn’t know, having come in July, that in October the world was going to fall apart,” she said.
Botman married her high school sweetheart, Thomas Birmingham, 60, after returning from Oxford, where he was also studying as a Rhodes Scholar.
For the past six years, Botman and Birmingham have lived in separate cities. Birmingham, a lawyer, lives in Boston. The two commute on weekends to see each other. Sometimes they stay at their house on Peak’s Island; sometimes she commutes to Boston, where her 87-year-old mother also lives.
“We make it work. Tom and I became an item when I was 15. I almost can’t remember a life before Tom Birmingham,” said Botman. “If we had a young relationship, this could be extraordinarily difficult, but because we have a very solid partnership, we make it work.”
Birmingham used to be a labor lawyer representing unions at B&M Baked Beans and Nissin in Portland. He also served in the Massachusetts State Senate for 12 years as a democrat, and ran unsuccessfully for governor of Massachusetts in 2002. Botman ran his campaign. She said she has no interest in running for public office.
Botman lives alone on the top floor of the president’s house on the Gorham campus. Every USM president has lived there; Pattenaude raised his children in the house. She said she rarely allows visitors into her private home, but often has meetings and events in the downstairs area, which is furnished by the university and is kept immaculately clean. Last semester, she taught a class in the downstairs living room.
While she misses her family, and admits the scenario isn’t “ideal,” she stays busy by focusing on her work.
“This is a very busy job. I get home late. I can’t typically finish my work during the day so I also work during the night,” she said.