PORTLAND — The good folks at Maine College of Art knew they were in for something completely different the moment Don Tuski began unpacking his belongings at his Congress Street office.

The college’s new president carted in boxes and boxes of books. He had so many volumes, he commissioned Oliver Percival, a MECA woodworking graduate and current employee in the woodworking department, to build him four sets of sturdy birch bookshelves.

Tuski filled those shelves top to bottom, and still had cartons of unpacked books on his office floor.

That is not to imply that the school’s previous presidents were not avid readers. Many of them were. But Tuski comes from a different matrix than anyone who has led MECA in the recent past.

For starters, the 47-year-old Tuski does not come from an art background. His family is full of artists. His wife is an actor and director, his son is studying music and his daughter is studying dance. So he understands and appreciates the arts, but he’s an academic all the way.

Before his appointment at MECA, he spent nearly all of his academic career, as a student and administrator, at Olivet College, a small, private liberal arts institution in Michigan. He earned his undergraduate degree at Olivet, then went to Michigan State University for his master’s and doctorate in anthropology. After completing his degrees, he went back to Olivet, where he ascended the ranks to the office of president.

He came to MECA for many reasons, but the most tangible is his belief that creativity is and will continue to be among the most important commodities in this country’s evolving new economy.

MECA is all about fostering creativity, and he believes the college is in the business of turning out members of America’s new work force.

“The new economy wants creative people,” he said. “What the economy needs and what business people need are creative people. Artists can solve problems from a mile away and from a lot of different angles.”

AGENDA FOR NEXT 20 YEARS

Before moving to town with his wife earlier this month — they bought an 1842 cape cottage in South Portland — Tuski took many trips to Portland to gain perspective and understanding about the school and the region.

While visiting, he stayed with former MECA President Roger Gilmore, whose vision is largely responsible for the college as we know it today.

The two men spent many hours talking about the school and the challenges it faces. Tuski came away from those sessions armed with 20 years of institutional knowledge.

His challenge is setting an agenda for the next 20.

It’s no secret that MECA faces a daunting crossroads. Undergraduate enrollment has declined in recent years, forcing the school into a bit of a retrenchment mode. Faculty and staff have departed, leaving many folks wondering if the college’s best years are in the past.

Tuski takes a different view. He’s operating with a lean budget of about $12 million, and projects an uptick in fall enrollment. The school budgeted for an incoming class of 100 or so new undergrads, but it looks now that the number will be closer to 115.

Meanwhile, the school’s continuing education program is booming, with 2,000-plus adult learners. The MFA program is healthy, as is the school’s art-education program. But the key is keeping overall undergraduate enrollment in the 400 range.

The bachelor of fine arts students represent the largest source of income for the school. Tuition is $26,000, although most students pay about $17,000 after financial aid is factored in.

That’s a lot of money. MECA has to ensure that its students receive their money’s worth.

That means the college must constantly adapt its curriculum to match students’ needs as well as those of prospective employers. It must do a better job retaining its students through graduation, and Tuski also wants to rebrand the school so prospective students and the community at large have a clearer picture of what MECA represents.

“I hear that MECA is important to Portland and to the region. I am told there are upward of 1,000 MECA grads in the Portland area alone. We need to do a better job of telling their stories and putting a public face on who we are and what we do.”

SOLUTIONS AT THE INTERSECTION

Tuski is smart enough to know that for MECA to succeed, he has to lead the way. He has to make sure that everyone understands the problems and buys into his vision.

“Implementation and execution is everything,” he said. “That intersection of faculty, staff and administration is where we’re going to find our solutions. I believe that problems are solved between the lines. I believe that a lot of solutions can be found in those boundary areas of intersection.”

Tuski also wants the school to become more involved in the wider discussion about art, culture and economy. He’s already sat down with Maine Arts Commission Director Donna McNeil, and he would love to begin a discussion with the tourism industry about doing a better job of promoting Portland as an arts destination, and MECA’s role in that.

“When the cruise ships show up, part of the reason they’re coming here is because of the art scene,” he said.

Case in point: On the morning of this interview, Portland was teeming with tourists who had just come off a ship. Many small groups of out-of-towners were wandering up and down Congress Street, frustrated that most of the art galleries had not yet opened for business.

It occurred to Tuski that Portland could do a better job communicating, so galleries could at least try to capture part of the cruise-ship business.

MECA may or may not see any direct benefit from that effort, but Tuski sees the larger picture. Whatever is good for the arts in Portland is good for MECA, and vice-versa.

So far, he’s done a lot of listening.

But come Aug. 29, when students and their parents arrive at MECA for the new academic year, Tuski’s task will change. That’s when he begins to lead the college forward.

“I’m a person who wants to be here for a long time,” he said. “I’m a lifelong learner, and I wanted to be at a place I could love as much as Olivet.

“MECA is that place.”