Campus Life

The university’s most controversial figures: a look at Stockton’s presidents

Republished from Volume 89, Issue V, October 9, 2019.

Stockton is a relatively young institution that has come very far in the past 50 years. However, just because Stockton is young does not mean it is without history. The character of an institution is determined only by its leadership and by the attitudes of its people. While it may come as a surprise to some, many of Stockton’s past leaders have had their fair share of tension while serving as president. 

Richard E. Bjork was beloved by some and hated by others. As a member of the U.S. Coast Guard, his style of management was much different than many of the professors at Stockton during this time who pursued PhDs from prestigious schools. Heather Perez, the librarian for Stockton’s Special Collections, says he was considered too strict for the “hippy era professors” employed at the time. A campus-wide strike broke out in 1973 when Bjork refused tenure to several faculty members, based on the idea that they should only keep those that he deemed effective. Not only did this anger the professors but it also upset the student body. During this strike, a cabin used by Bjork was set ablaze by a group of “radical students,” an earlier reporter stated, of which the responsible parties were never discovered. 

The Richard E. Bjork Library was dedicated to the former president to commemorate his vast accomplishments since the college’s founding. While serving the college, he increased enrollment from 900 to 4,914 students over an eight-year span, constructed several new buildings, and prided himself in hiring excellent faculty. He lead the college through the accreditation process and was known to be affirming in ideals. Bjork had great expectations for the young school, aspiring for state and national recognition. Initially, Bjork intended for Stockton to give students freedom as young adults and flexibility in their course, and he continued to keep this vision in mind even after being criticized by faculty for making them cater to the needs and interests of students. 

Vera King Farris, another former college president, had her fair share of controversy while serving at Stockton. She was slammed by faculty who disagreed with her style of management at the college, stating that her alliance with faculty only proceeded with the faculty that saw eye-to-eye with the president. These claims were allegedly preceded by a lengthy tenure battle with other faculty members. In a 1980s memo to the board of trustees, Farris made loaded statements about a “skeptical” group of faculty disagreeing with the cycle of administration and complaining about the “lack of direct communication and involvement” in governing the college. She notes that even the faculty that she deems effective are concerned about tenure guidelines. In this same memo, Farris makes claims that she was being harassed by faculty. “It made her sound very paranoid,” said Heather Perez, “she claimed she was being blackmailed.” 

Farris, who many students may only recognize because of Vera King Farris Drive, had her doctorate in Zoology and put her career as a scientist on hold to serve as the president of Richard Stockton College. Farris was one of the first female African-American presidents of a public college in the country and took pride in being able to increase the educational standards of Stockton. She created the opportunity for funding and scholarships, made necessary renovations, and increased minority enrollment at the young college. One of her greatest projects was the creation of the Holocaust and Genocide Studies program, which branched into the first Masters’s program of its kind in the country. Vera King Farris not only worked administratively, but she also worked as a writer for The Argo answering students’ questions. 

Herman Saatkamp served as president of the college until 2015 when Harvey Kesselman took over. Faculty may recall Stockton’s purchase of the Showboat, an Atlantic City casino that closed in 2014. Herman Saatkamp bought the Showboat in late 2014 for $18 million dollars. In early 2015, classes were already being scheduled at the Showboat for that summer, but they unfortunately would never take place. The Showboat was a large casino property in AC, and that’s all previous owners intended for it to be.

The Showboat had a 10-year covenant attached to it forbidding future owners from using the property for casino purposes—and a 1988 covenant forbidding it from being used for non-casino purposes. In a deal between Trump Taj Mahal and Caesars expiring in 2082, the big-wigs designed this covenant in order to bring more business to the undeveloped area. When the casino was purchased by Saatkamp, the latter covenant was unknown, and once discovered, was covered up by Saatkamp. According to notes from the Board of Trustees meeting, Saatkamp threatened to resign if the board did not approve his purchase request. When asked about his motives, Perez simply said, “he wanted an Atlantic City campus at all costs.” In 2015, after months of deliberation, Stockton was forced to sell the Showboat. In August 2015, after receiving a vote of “no confidence” from a portion of the faculty, Herman Saatkamp resigned as president of the college. 

Saatkamp is largely remembered for these acts, but he also completed several grand projects for the school. He saw the college become a university in early 2015, and constructed the school’s largest building, the Campus Center, in 2011. He emphasized the design of green buildings and established the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality & Tourism in the School of Business. Saatkamp also initiated Stockton’s first comprehensive fundraising campaign, which exceeded its goals by raising $25.36 million. 

Each of the aforementioned presidents made great strides in the development of Stockton as a college and subsequently as a university. It would be an understatement to say that the past presidents of Stockton have influenced Stockton in a way that is unique to our past administration. Hopefully, the growth of Stockton will continue to grow exponentially as an institution, even if we can be a bit dramatic at times.