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LEWISTON – Approachable is the best word to describe the Rev. James J. Maher, the new president of Niagara University.

Maher, a member of the Vincentian community, became the university’s 26th president when he assumed the office in August, succeeding Rev. Joseph L. Levesque, who served as Niagara’s president for the past 13 years. Maher will be officially installed on April 4.

“The most important thing I am doing right now is listening,” Maher said of his first semester as president. “I’m going to do a listening session with everyone on campus – faculty, administrators, assistant secretaries, food service, people who cut the lawns, do the maintenance, do all those things. I want to learn about Niagara from them. That will help me craft a vision as we go forward. It’s nice way to learn about a place from the people who have been here each and every day.”

That also applies to students.

“I’ve always tried to have a balance between being engaged and accessible and visible with the position,” Maher said. “I’m often in Clet Hall, in the dining hall eating, Gallagher student center, at student events. It gives me a balance. You can do this job in a way that you lock yourself behind closed doors and in meetings all day. Somebody has to pop some holes in the top of the can and get some air in there.”

He said some people on campus still don’t recognize him as president.

He recently called an athlete who had a concussion in a game, introduced himself at Father Maher and asked her how she was doing. Maher, laughing, said that as the call end the girl said, “And by the way, who are you?”

Before coming to Niagara, Maher served at St. John’s University in New York City, where he was executive vice president for mission and student services, vice president of student affairs, vice president of university ministry and campus minister and executive director of the Vincentian Institute for Social Action.

He also had been a trustee on Niagara’s board for the past four years, but he said he has had a longtime connection to the university and the area that goes back to before he was ordained in May 1990.

Maher lived in Niagara Falls in 1984-85, after graduating from St. John’s, as part of the Vincentian Service Corps, which is a year of volunteer service. He worked in service to the poor in Niagara Falls and Buffalo and worked with Niagara University students, living on the former Niagara University Deveaux Campus in Niagara Falls.

“I got to know the people of Western New York, and I never forgot that experience because I always found the people in the region very friendly,” he said.

Maher said his brother, John, also a Vincentian priest, is a graduate of Niagara who worked at Niagara two times, in student affairs and in a leadership position in campus ministry. He said his brother now works in Rome as the director of communications for the Vincentian order.

“I first came here when I was 11 or 10 years old when my brother was a resident assistant,” Maher said. “The first time I saw the campus was when my father and I drove him up here to school. Actually, the Buffalo Bills were training here at the time.”

Maher earned his doctor of ministry degree from Immaculate Conception Seminary and Graduate School of Theology on Long Island. He earned two master’s degrees in theology from the Mary Immaculate Seminary and a bachelor of arts degree in sociology from St. John’s. He is a trustee of DePaul University. He has numerous awards, completed 10 New York City marathons in establishing the Run Against Hunger, is a leading member of the Global Alliance for Workers and did his doctoral thesis on issues of corporate responsibility, traveling to the Nike factories in Vietnam.

He praises Levesque for his work at Niagara, which he hopes to build on in the coming years.

“I have come into a nice situation,” he said. “The campus is beautiful, there is a really good array of faculty and administrators here and there’s a nice vibrancy and energy on the campus. I hope to bring my own unique qualities, but it is wonderful to stand on his shoulders.”

He added, “I have a wonderful tie with Father Levesque because when I was ordained as a priest, he was our provincial, which is the head of the order.”

Niagara, a mid-size university, welcomed its largest freshman class in five years, 698 students, and opened the B. Thomas Golisano Center for Integrated Sciences this fall.

Maher said an outstanding faculty with small class sizes, as well as its new facilities, will help the university draw students. “If you get someone to visit, they will fall in love with it,” Maher said of Niagara. “We have terrific faculty in the sciences. Now we’re in the game with those other schools because the Golisano Center for Integrated Sciences is such a state-of-the-art building,” Maher said. “It’s a bit of a game-changer for students who may have thought of Niagara before, but you couldn’t get them.”

He said Niagara also hopes to take advantage of the intimate size of the university to draw students globally. “We are definitely going to look to recruit more students from around the world and establish platforms in Southeast Asia and Turkey and other places as well,” Maher said. “We talk about being a global community. Our students will be going out into the world ... so it gives them great exposure to what it means to be in the global marketplace.”

Maher said getting the word out about Niagara will be his priority. “I have to work on telling the story of Niagara,” he said, “the level of community service and engagement, the great work that is done by our faculty and students in the City of Niagara Falls, the opportunity that we have at this point to be involved with hospitality and tourism in Niagara Falls. We have over 15,000 alumni in the Western New York area. I’d like to get them charged up even more about Niagara. We are really committed to being a dynamic presence.”

email: nfischer@buffnews.com