PORTLAND — Theodora Kalikow has few preconceived notions for how to fix the problems of the University of Southern Maine.

On Tuesday, her first day as USM’s president, Kalikow recalled advice she gave to college administrators who sought her guidance during her 18 years as president of the University of Maine at Farmington.

“One of the first things I say to new presidents is, ‘Shut up,’ ” Kalikow said with trademark frankness. “You can lose it at the opening (faculty) dinner if you come in and tell them all the things you’re going to do to them. The first thing I’m going to do is listen. A lot.”

Kalikow retired June 30 from UMaine-Farmington, where she was the longest-serving president since the school became a four-year college in 1945.

Under her leadership, the university got top regional rankings in U.S. News & World Report for 15 consecutive years and was nationally recognized as one of 20 model universities committed to maximizing students’ potential in “Student Success in College: Creating Conditions that Matter,” published by the American Association for Higher Education.

At 71, Kalikow intended to retire, enjoy her home in Mount Vernon and work as a consultant for the University of Maine System, promoting community economic development and programs to entice students in rural areas to go to college.

Instead, she delayed those plans for at least two years to take the USM job at the request of the system’s new chancellor, James Page.

Kalikow replaced Selma Botman, who was USM’s president for four years before requesting reassignment in the wake of a no-confidence vote by the faculty and controversy over big raises she gave to top administrators despite funding and program cuts.

On Monday, the system’s trustees appointed Kalikow to the USM post and appointed Botman to lead the system’s efforts to recruit international students.

Page said he picked Kalikow for her demonstrated ability to lead a complex institution, her deep understanding of the challenges facing higher education and her no-nonsense approach to addressing problems and communicating with people.

“I couldn’t ask for a better combination,” Page said Tuesday.

Kalikow said several conditions threaten to bring disruptive change to higher education nationwide, including students’ increasingly diverse needs and the variety of educational outlets, both of which have been aided by the Internet.

The way society values education and what people are willing to pay for it are changing, too, especially when it comes to funding public education, Kalikow said.

Meanwhile, employers continue to demand better-trained workers and a democratic nation needs educated voters, she said.

“These are challenges we need to be ready for,” said Kalikow, a Massachusetts native who has a doctorate in philosophy from Boston University.

Kalikow declined to discuss specific problems at USM before she meets with students, professors, administrators and staff members. She described the problems broadly as “challenges and opportunities.”

Some of those challenges, however, are daunting.

USM has an overall graduation rate of 35 percent, compared with 59 percent at UMaine-Farmington, according to educationnews.org.

Enrollment at USM has dropped from 11,382 to 9,301 since 2002, leaving many empty dorm rooms on the university’s Gorham campus.

USM also struggles to meet the diverse needs of students and faculty members on three campuses, in Portland, Gorham and Lewiston, and it competes with several public, private and for-profit colleges in southern Maine.

To address those issues, Kalikow said, she will listen to the USM community, lead the development of a clear vision to move the university forward and identify and empower campus leaders to carry out those goals. She calls it “structured freedom.”

“My basic thinking is presidents do nothing,” Kalikow said. “The answers are in the institution. I’m a catalyst. People here know what needs to be done. It isn’t rocket science.”

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: [email protected]