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A History of Past Salem State University Presidents

Patricia “Pat” Maguire Meservey, PhD, was the 13th President of Salem State University. President Meservey was recognized for her work in the advancement of teaching excellence, the promotion of faculty scholarship, and academic and administrative strategic planning. She embraced and advanced the high-quality, student-centered education model that is at the core of the university’s mission and was known for her commitment in advancing the North Shore region's cultural, social and economic development.

In her decade of leadership at Salem State, the university has seen tremendous growth in student success, an elevation of its profile, an increase in fundraising efforts, and significant improvements to its physical campus among numerous other accomplishments she shares with the Salem State community. 

During President Meservey’s tenure, student success was the primary driver for the university’s plans and initiatives. From 2007 to 2016, the graduation rate for baccalaureate students increased 15 percentage points – the largest change in the Massachusetts state university system. Salem State’s six-year graduation rate for first-year freshmen has increased from 37 percent in 2007 to 52 percent in 2015, with a 67 percent graduation rate for transfer students. This growth reflects the exceptional efforts of faculty and staff to support students, and the university continues to set aggressive goals in the area of student success. 

Recognizing the many aspects of diversity at Salem State, President Meservey has made it a priority to ensure a campus community that is welcoming to all. Bringing multiple and varied voices to our community and affirming their unique perspectives, Salem State University provides a learning environment that promotes mutual respect, an understanding of differences, and an appreciation of similarities.  

President Meservey was a leading champion for the achievement of university status from the Massachusetts legislature in 2010. Becoming Salem State University, this legislative change reflects the large, comprehensive institution the university has become, bringing greater recognition to the high quality of Salem State’s academic programs and the many accomplishments of its faculty and students. 

Recognizing the need for alternative funding sources, President Meservey established the university’s first comprehensive campaign. In December of 2016, the university exceeded its goal, and raised over $26 million during the campaign from over 11,000 donors, with a remarkable 93 percent participation rate among faculty and staff. The funds resulted in the establishment of over 40 new scholarships for students and much needed financial support for academic programs.

Under President Meservey’s leadership, profound changes were made to the physical campus. Nearly 760,000 square feet of new construction and renovations were completed, bringing state-of-the-art academic and student life spaces to campus. Through the support of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and generous donors, combined with resources of the university’s operating budget, over $250 million was been invested in campus improvements. Highlights of these changes include the Frederick E. Berry Library and Learning Commons, the Sophia Gordon Center for Creative and Performing Arts, the Harold E. and Marilyn J. Gassett Fitness Center, athletic fields and courts, and two residence halls that provide accommodations for nearly 900 students. Efforts are currently underway to secure the Commonwealth’s support for a new science facility to support the growing demand for science, health care and technology programming.

During her tenure, President Meservey was fully committed to supporting the university’s host city of Salem, the North Shore region and the Commonwealth as a whole with the institution’s expertise, talent and resources. She herself served on a number of boards and committees in the North Shore and beyond. She is a founding member and chair of the board for the North Shore Alliance for Economic Development, serves as a member of the Massachusetts STEM Advisory Council, a member of the Health Care Workforce Transformation Fund Advisory Board, a board member for Bottom Line, past chair Commission on Institutions of Higher Education (CIHE) of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, the New England Council, the North Shore Workforce Investment Board, and the North Shore Chamber of Commerce. She is also a member of the Eastern Bank Corporation Board of Trustees. In 2015 and 2016, under President Meservey’s leadership, Salem State was named one of the top 100 women-led businesses in Massachusetts by the Commonwealth Institute and Boston Globe Magazine.

President Meservey joined Salem State in 2007 after serving as Suffolk University’s first Provost and Academic Vice President. Prior to that, she held a number of administrative leadership roles at Northeastern University and served as a faculty member in Northeastern University’s Bouvé College of Health Sciences and at Suffolk University. In those roles, she provided leadership in the transformation of nursing and medical education, bringing students into the fields of community health and primary care. Through work with the neighborhood health centers of Boston, President Meservey provided learning opportunities for students and improved health care options for patients and community members.

President Meservey holds a PhD in higher education administration from Boston College, an MS in parent-child health nursing and a BS in nursing, both from Boston University, and a diploma in nursing from Faulkner Hospital. She is a Fellow in the American Academy of Nursing.

Nancy D. Harrington led Salem State College through a second decade of continued growth and expansion. A lifelong resident of Salem, Harrington arrived in 1956 as a freshman in pursuit of a degree in education. The college granted her a bachelor's degree in 1960 and a master's degree in 1963.

Except for a three-year stint as a teacher in West Peabody, Harrington remained part of the college until her retirement as president in 2007. While pursuing a doctorate at Boston University, she began to climb through the ranks of teacher, supervisor, principal, dean, and vice president of academic affairs at her alma mater.

When she was named the 12th president of Salem State College in 1990, she became not only the first woman to hold that position, but also the first Salem native and first graduate of the college.

Harrington's first order of business as president was the purchase of the former GTE site on Loring Avenue. She presided over the college's new Central Campus facilities, which included new facilities for the Bertolon School of Business, the music department and information technology, as well as a new residence hall.

Dr. Harrington also initiated and directed the development of the master of science degree program in nursing and the MBA programs, each the first of its kind in the Commonwealth's state colleges. She played a key role in the development of the college's graduate social work program, the only such program in the Massachusetts public higher education system.

Dr. Harrington retired in June 2007.

Rolando Bonachea was born in Cuba, and fled the country in 1960 at the age of 17. He earned his bachelor's degree in political science at the University of New Mexico and his doctorate in history from Georgetown University. He did post-doctoral work at Stanford as a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow.

Bonachea taught at Boise State University before entering the world of academic administration. He served as associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Boise State and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Saint Louis University in Missouri. Bonachea also served as vice president and acting president at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Bonachea became the 11th president of Salem State College on August 1, 1988. At his inauguration, Bonachea declared 1988-1989 the "Year of Student Life." Bonachea made efforts to make himself available to students, and also to campus neighbors who had concerns about the college. He worked with the city of Salem to institute "Pride Day," a campus beautification effort. He was also the first Salem State president to meet with the Horace Mann School's parent teacher council. Unfortunately, Bonachea was forced to spend much of his time dealing with budget cuts brought on by the state fiscal crisis.

Bonachea resigned on May 15, 1989. Kenneth McIlraith, a member of the Salem State College Board of Trustees, agreed to serve as acting president until a successor was selected.

James Amsler was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1921. He attended Boston public schools and was graduated from Boston Technical High School. Upon completing his BS degree at Fitchburg State College, he served for four years as a naval intelligence officer during World War II. After World War II he attended Harvard University, where he earned his master’s degree in 1950. He continued on to Boston University, and was awarded the EdD degree in 1955.

Amsler taught in several public school systems before his appointment as instructor of manual training at the Horace Mann School in 1949. In 1955, he joined the faculty at State Teachers College at Salem as an education instructor. He held several administrative positions during his first tenure at Salem, including director of admissions, dean of students and director of student teaching. In 1967, Amsler left Salem to become associate director of the Division of State Colleges in Boston. In 1969, he was appointed president of North Adams State, where he remained for almost a decade.

Amsler returned to Salem State on January 14, 1979, as the college's tenth president, where he continued with some of President Penson's priorities. Most notably, he continued to strengthen the community services area by emphasizing public relations, alumni affairs and development. The Salem State College Alumni Association established a 50-member board of directors, and the Salem State College Varsity Club and Varsity Club Hall of Fame were established for alumni athletes. The Salem State College Series began in 1982, with former President Gerald Ford delivering the first address. President Amsler and the Salem State College Foundation reinvigorated fundraising efforts, and began the college's first capital campaign, "The Push for Progress." The campaign raised over $400,000 to establish the Resource Center for Business at Salem State.

The academic area also grew under President Amsler's watch. New masters programs in business, nursing and social work (the only MSW in a Massachusetts public college) were introduced. The Continuing Education department grew as non-credit offerings and continuing education courses were made available to the general public. Amsler also oversaw the establishment of the Center for Creative and Performing Arts, Sextant and the Center for Adult and Lifelong Learning.

Amsler retired in 1987, after taking a brief sabbatical. William Mahaney was appointed acting president.

Edward Penson was born on August 30, 1927, in New York. He attended public schools in Miami Beach, Florida, before joining the Navy in 1945. After his discharge, he attended the University of Florida and graduated with a bachelors degree (cum laude) in 1950. He subsequently earned his masters degree at Ohio University (1951) and a PhD in speech communications at the University of Florida (1955).

Edward Penson began his professional career at Ohio University as an assistant professor in 1955. He went on to hold administrative positions of increasing responsibility, culminating in his appointment to vice president of academic services in 1973. In 1975, Penson was appointed president of Salem State College.

Inheriting a campus with low morale, Penson concentrated on improving communication among campus constituencies, and also between the college and the larger community. He developed campuswide task forces on community service, public affairs and cultural affairs to increase the profile of the college in the community. He established a campus newsletter, The Communicator, to increase the flow of information internally, and created the campuswide committees called for in the new statewide faculty collective bargaining agreement. He also established a community service office to handle public information, alumni affairs, grant acquisitions, and development.

The Salem State College Development Fund was created in 1976 in reaction to drastic reductions in state funding. The first annual fund drive was held during the 1977-78 academic year, and raised $25,000 in donations. Penson also began intensive lobbying efforts with legislators to restore adequate funding for the college.

Penson resigned in July 1978 to take the position of chancellor at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh. In leaving, he said part of his motivation was that "Massachusetts falls about 49 steps short with support for higher education. This state has not made a clear commitment to organize itself towards aiding higher education."

Walter James was appointed acting president during the search for Penson's successor.

Frank Keegan was born in California on January 6, 1925. He attended local schools in Santa Rosa before shipping out with the U.S. Merchant Marines from 1943-1945. After his discharge from service he returned to his studies, and received his PhD degree from the University of Santa Clara (1949) and his masters (1952) and PhD (1959) degrees from the University of Notre Dame. His doctoral dissertation explored the development of Jacques Maritain's Christian philosophy.

Keegan went on to serve in a variety of academic positions at Notre Dame, Georgetown and Cleveland State University. He also worked for the Peace Corps in Washington, D.C., and for the Ford Foundation in Mexico and Central America.

Keegan was appointed president of Salem State College in July, and assumed the presidency effective September 1, 1970. In his opening speech to the faculty, Keegan said that he wanted an activist campus with active and motivated faculty and students. The students were certainly activists during his tenure, which was marked by several sit-ins and demonstrations by student groups angered over both local campus problems and world issues such as the Vietnam war. In reaction to demands, Keegan created a variety of new student services, such as the day care center, the veterans' center, the counseling center, the learning center, and the Florence Luscomb Women's Center. He also made a commitment to diversifying the campus through the creation of the minority affairs program and the first affirmative action committee at Salem State.

Dr. Vincent Mara, academic dean at Framingham State College, was appointed acting president for the 1974-1975 academic year.

Frederick A. Meier, the seventh president of Salem State College, was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on December 22, 1910. He attended Boston College, receiving a BS degree in chemistry in 1932, and an MS degree in 1933. In 1950, he completed his studies for the EdD degree at Indiana University.

He began his teaching career as head of the science department at Whitman High School. In 1936, he joined the staff at Bridgewater State College as director of physical education and professor of biology. In 1938, he became dean of men. Meier enlisted in the Air Force in 1942, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant; after the war he returned to Bridgewater State.

He was appointed president of the State Teachers College at Salem in 1954. Like colleges around the country, Salem State experienced its most dramatic growth in enrollment, facilities, personnel and academic programs during the post-World War II period. Most notable were the changes in the academic programs. The year after Meier arrived, the division of graduate education was established, offering the master of education and the master of arts in teaching degrees.

In 1956, Salem offered its first alternative to an education degree when it added a bachelor of science degree in business administration to the curriculum. Salem was allowed to offer the bachelor of arts degree in 1964, and quickly developed programs in biology, chemistry, economics, mathematics, history, and English. Reflecting the changes in curriculum, the college changed its name from State Teachers College at Salem to State College at Salem in 1960, and finally to Salem State College in 1969.

Meier also initiated a major program in building construction. With the help of federal and state funds, he initiated the construction of the arts and sciences Building (now Meier Hall), Ellison Campus Center, Bowditch Hall, Peabody Hall, the power plant, the bell tower, and the library.

Salem State was not immune to the growing student unrest that swept colleges around the country. During the final years of Meier's tenure, controversies over student rights, the dress code and censorship of the student newspaper, the Salem State Log, erupted. Meier retired from the presidency in 1970, and returned to teaching as a professor of secondary education at Bridgewater State College. He died in 1999 at the age of 88.

Edward A. Sullivan, the sixth president of Salem Teachers College, was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on October 14, 1895. He received his BA degree with honors in 1914, and his MA in classical studies and English literature in 1915, both from Boston College. Sullivan served in the U.S. Navy during World War I, and held a number of teaching and administrative positions prior to his appointment as president of Salem Teachers College in 1937.

Mr. Sullivan's term of office spanned 16 years, a period of national stress and the expansion of American higher education. The teacher training programs of the state teachers colleges were being revised to keep pace with national and local trends, and changes in the needs of students and the country. In order to comply with new accreditation standards set by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE), Sullivan revised the education curriculum so that it not only had a professional education component, but also general education and specialized subject matter components. Salem was accredited by AACTE in 1950, and in 1953 became one of the few public colleges in New England accredited by the New England Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. Sullivan retired from State Teachers College at Salem in 1953. He died on December 16, 1968.

Joseph Asbury Pitman, the fifth principal of the Salem Normal School, was born in Appleton, Maine, in 1867. Pitman attended the public schools in Appleton, and entered the Castine Normal School in 1884. He graduated as salutatorian of his class in 1887.

After graduation, Pitman went on to administrative positions in Maine and Massachusetts before becoming principal of the Salem Normal School in 1906. Under his administration, Salem Normal School expanded, and developed from a two-year school that offered only training for elementary school teachers into a state teachers college that offered a four-year program and conferred the bachelor of science degree in education.

In 1908, Pitman developed the commercial department and Salem Normal School became the first public institution in the country to provide for the professional as well as technical training of commercial teachers in an integrated program. In 1914, a junior high course was introduced in response to the demand for systematic training of teachers for the seventh and eighth grades. By 1922, the junior high course had expanded from three years to a full four-year program that awarded the bachelor of science degree in education. In 1929, the special education department was organized to train teachers of mentally challenged and deaf students. Also during Pitman's tenure, the Horace Mann Training School was built to meet student teaching needs.

In 1932, Salem Normal School became State Teachers College at Salem , offering four-year programs leading to a bachelor of science in education degree in junior high education, commercial education, special education, and elementary education. Pitman retired from State Teachers College at Salem in June 1937, after thirty-one years of service. He died in Maine on August 26, 1952.

Walter Parker Beckwith, the fourth principal of Salem Normal School, was born in Lempster, New Hampshire, on August 27, 1850. Because he lived in a rural area, much of his early education was limited to the short terms of district schools. When he was fifteen, he left his father's farm to begin his college preparation. He attended the high school in Claremont, New Hampshire, and then went on to Kimball Academy in Meriden, New Hampshire. In 1871 he entered Tufts University, where he excelled in his studies and was a leader among his classmates. He was graduated from Tufts with honors in 1876, after taking a year off from his studies to teach.

During his undergraduate days, Beckwith had considered becoming a lawyer; however, his successful teaching experience and his love for the process of education persuaded him to remain in the profession. Upon graduation, he became principal of a high school in Chicopee, where he remained for two years. In 1878, he became superintendent of schools in Adams, a position he held for the next eighteen years. He returned to Tufts for a master's degree during his tenure in Adams, and was graduated with an MA in Latin and English literature in 1883.

In 1896, he was appointed principal of Salem Normal School. Several major changes took place during his tenure, including the building of a new campus and a subsequent increase in enrollment. He was also responsible for the admittance of men to the school and several curricular changes. Beckwith discontinued the advanced course and replaced it with special courses of study designed for teachers and college graduates. He improved and enriched the course of study for the elementary program and instituted a model school, which was located on the first floor of the main academic building. Walter Beckwith died on October 13, 1905 of cancer.

Hagar, the third principal of Salem Normal School, was born in Newton Lower Falls, Massachusetts, on April 22, 1820. Hagar was graduated from Union College in 1843 as valedictorian of his class and as a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Prior to his appointment to Salem Normal, Hagar was principal of Canajoharie Academy, superintendent of schools in New York state, principal of Norwich Academy, and headmaster of Eliot High School in Jamaica Plain. He also served as president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, and co-founded the National Teachers Association, which became the National Education Association while he was president of the organization.

Many changes occurred during Hagar's tenure as principal of Salem Normal School. The school expanded and renovated its building on Broad Street in 1871 because of increasing enrollment. The curriculum grew, with more emphasis given to psychology, music, drawing, calisthenics, and industrial arts. Hagar also developed the idea of a training school for Salem Normal students, but he would not live to see the completion of the new school building he planned, which would devote the entire first floor to a model school. Dr. Hagar died in Sharon, Massachusetts, on July 4, 1896.

Crosby, the second principal of Salem Normal School, was born in Sandwich, New Hampshire, on October 13, 1810. He was graduated from Dartmouth College, which he entered at the young age of thirteen. Prior to his selection to serve on the Massachusetts Board of Education in 1854, Crosby served on the faculty at Dartmouth, and later as superintendant of public schools in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

In 1857, he was appointed principal of Salem Normal School. During his tenure at Salem, he continued to raise the school to a higher standard of excellence, and contributed extensively to its library. He was an educational reformer of his time, putting less stress on the professional teacher education courses and more stress on the liberal arts. He was also a reformer in a broader sense, and was an ardent abolitionist and supporter of the rights of women. In 1864, he helped found the Salem Freedmen's Aid Society. After the Civil War ended, he left Salem Normal School to edit The Right Way, a newspaper devoted to the equal rights of emancipated slaves. Crosby died on April 17, 1874, after a short illness.

Edwards, the first principal of Salem Normal School, was born in Cardiganshire, Wales, on December 23, 1822. His family emigrated to the U.S. in 1833 and settled in Ohio. Edwards attended the State Normal School at Bridgewater, graduating in 1845, and then went on to earn science and engineering degrees at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI).

After his graduation from RPI in 1848, he returned to Massachusetts to begin his teaching career. Edwards became an agent for the Massachusetts State Board of Education in 1853, and was appointed in 1854 to the position of principal of Salem Normal School.

Edwards was a pioneer in the development of normal schools at a time when there was a need to train teachers. In 1857, on the recommendation of Horace Mann, he became the first principal of the city normal school of St. Louis. In the early days of the Civil War, he became the second principal of the Illinois State Normal University. He died on March 7, 1908.

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