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Monday, April 14, 11:57 a.m.
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The man behind the brass nameplate

Haley Johnston

It’s the start of yet another year at the University of Maine, an event that reeks of new beginnings: a new freshman class, new class schedules, new hours at dining facilities, fresh asphalt laid to hold together miles of campus roads and walkways.

Unlike most years, however, this semester also marks the first for university president, Paul Ferguson.

Like any recently appointed official, Ferguson has been busy gathering information about the problems he will tackle while in office.

A conversation with him will invariably bring up terms like “enrollment management” and “faculty erosion,” language generally reserved for board meetings and press releases.

A bit of further inquiry, however, reveals some details one might not expect of a trained toxicologist turned university administrator.

Take, for example, his aspirations to one day become a novelist — the title for his first book is even picked.

According to Ferguson, “It’s called ‘Groundwater.’”

Using his expertise in toxicology, he wants to pen a tale “exploring chemical exposure in our environment through the eyes of a journalist and how risky [that exposure] is.”

“The parallel story would be something about the journalist’s path through ethics,” Ferguson said. “Does he become contaminated in the process?”

Aside from the hours spent thinking about his breakout novel, Ferguson devotes a portion of his free time to reading.

“I’d say I always have about five or six books going at the same time,” he said, naming former President Bill Clinton as the inspiration for his literary regimen.

While some of his selections could be classified as professional development — he usually has one title on hand about trends in higher education — his recreational choices offer insight into the life behind the brass nameplate.

“I also like some fiction. I just finished ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,’” Ferguson said, adding, “I always traditionally read the most recent John Grisham novel. I’ve been a fan of his for a long time.”

Ferguson is not merely a man of words and academia.

An ardent fan of college sports, he would not cop to any team allegiances outside of Black Bear country. Having moved several times during the course of his life, his ties to professional sports teams seem to change with his location.

“I grew up in a pro sports town — Los Angeles. I grew up a Dodgers fan, I grew up an Angels fan. I lived in St. Louis, so then I was a Cardinals fan. So now I’m a Red Sox fan,” Ferguson said.

“But I’ve always been a Packers fan, but that’s history,” he said, so don’t expect to see him sporting a Brady jersey around town.

Ferguson’s participation in the sporting community is not limited to the couch or stadium seating. He played tennis in college, after all, a passion he continues to fuel with matches against his daughter Jenny, who came with the family to Orono and is currently a second-year student studying political science at UMaine.

Those wishing an audience with the man himself might consider taking up racquetball, one of his favorite pastimes for which he still needs a partner.

A warning to potential challengers, though: the new president defines himself as a competitive individual on the courts.

“Now, I didn’t say I’m good — I just said I’m competitive,” Ferguson added.

Aspiring musicians who might want to add their latest mix to the presidential playlist would have better luck going through Jenny, his unofficial auditory liaison.

“Jenny has done a great job burning certain CDs with wide selections of different music sets,” he said.

His ears are open to just about any genre, he said, praising the recent production of Sweeney Todd at UMaine during the Summer Musical Theatre Festival and expressing lament for missing both the recent Lady Antebellum concert in Bangor and a show by the Black Eyed Peas in St. Louis.

As much as anyone is defined by what position he holds, or where he works, Ferguson is very much an academic administrator. Boilerplate terms describing the issues he is facing in his professional life are indeed very real dilemmas in his life.

Rather than sitting back and reading reports compiled by other individuals, delegations and special committees, he has been on the ground since his arrival talking to students and the larger community, gathering the pertinent information firsthand.

Since his arrival in June, Ferguson has toured Bath Iron Works, the historic shipyard on the Kennebec River with close ties to the university.

He has taken a helicopter tour of  the Katahdin region with Bob Wagner, a professor who focuses on sustainability issues within the Forest Bioproducts Research Institute.

He has toured various locales in the southern part of the state and visited Bar Harbor, where the scenery revealed why so many people choose to live in Maine.

“I had lunch there, looking out over the harbor, cruise ship sitting there, sailboat coming into the harbor,” Ferguson said. “You can’t sit there having a lobster roll in the middle of summer and not say, ‘This is an incredible place.’”

These trips, while certainly seeming like the itinerary of the typical summer visitor, have all been directed toward an information-gathering initiative, a working holiday.

“We’re really about getting to as many constituencies as possible and hearing what their main concerns are,” he said. “I really think it’s the time for a new president to hear what people think.”