by Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette — On a day when the Vatican elected its new pontiff, Niagara University had its own bit of white smoke rise into the Lewiston air.
The Rev. James Maher, executive vice president for mission and student services at St. John’s University in New York City, was named the school’s 26th president.
He’ll take office Aug. 1 following outgoing President the Rev. Joseph Levesque, who announced earlier this year he was stepping down.
“Father Levesque has done a wonderful job as president for 13 years,” Maher said. “So I’m really coming into a situation where the university is in really good shape. There’s a great administrative team, there’s a wonderful faculty. And we have great academic programs here. So part of my role will be to help tell that story in the region, beyond the region and globally.”
Maher has spent the past 22 years serving various roles at St. John’s, where he also completed his undergraduate studies before receiving two Master’s degrees and a doctorate. But Niagara also holds a special place in his heart as the alma matter of his brother, the Rev. John Maher, who also worked at the school from 2005-2011.
As a boy, he used to make the drive with his brother and father to the school. As a young adult himself, he spent a year in service learning in the community, where he said he gained a new perspective about the Western New York community he’ll soon call home
But of all those memories, it’s one involving a sports team on campus which he remembers most fondly.
“I remember coming here when the Buffalo Bills used to train here back where the fitness center is right now,” he said. “So meeting at that point Bobby Moore” – now Ahmad Rashad – “and some of the other Bills at that time. It sort of planted the seed that this is a special place. In this life and especially as a priest, you can be taken to a number of different venues. But I’ve got to think it’s God’s hand I ended up back here.”
While Maher has a history with the school, it isn’t ancient. In addition to his early work, he’s spent the past three years as a member of the university’s board of directors. He’s provided expertise to the organization in committees dedicated to educational policy and finance.
Both of these areas, he said, will go a long way to helping him as he assumes his new role.
“It gave me an opportunity to learn in more detail about the academic programs which are the heart of the institution and the finances which really creates the opportunity to have those programs for people,” he said. “I think it gives me a unique vantage point in the sense I really got to know the institution and got to know the trustees. I would try to spend time at the university when I would come here so it gave me a great opportunity to see the campus, see the development and see the unfolding of the (B. Thomas) Golisano science center and the projects going on here.”
Working with Levesque is also an attractive opportunity, Maher said. His predecessor served in an advisory role when Maher entered into priesthood, guiding the young Maher as he joined the Vincentian order.
“He’s a great gift and a treasure for us and we’re so grateful that he will remain a part of our university community as president emeritus,” Maher said of Levesque. “I look at it as having somebody I can speak to at certain times. He was my provincial when I was coming into the priesthood, and he was great to me as a young priest.”
Jeffrey Holzschuh, who serves as the university’s board chairman, introduced Maher as the incoming president. He said the group looked for candidates among the Vincentian order and identified several characteristics the next leader must possess, including a deep understanding of higher education and its challenges and opportunities, fundraising leadership and an ability to communicate well and maintain the high level of visibility Levesque upheld during his 13 years.
Holzschuh said Maher fits the bill completely and will lead the university forward.
“Father Maher is a lifelong learner,” he said. “In addition to his degrees ... he has attended the Harvard Management Development Program, the Stevens Institute and the Harvard University Institute of Educational Management. We have a man who is student-focused, collaborative, strong in management and leadership and committed to the Catholic and Vincentian tradition.”