How Stockton University Landed on Atlantic City’s Boardwalk

The school's new campus, which opened last September, features a three-story academic building and a 533-bed dorm with ocean views.

Stockton University president Harvey Kesselman at the school’s new campus on the southern edge of Atlantic City. Photo by Dave Moser

Stockton University spent the first four months of its existence in 1971 camped out in an eight-story Atlantic City hotel that, like the city itself, had begun to fray. Tourists still checked in to stay on the top two floors, but the rest of the hotel was temporarily transformed into classrooms, offices and dorm rooms. On the ground floor, Mickey Finn’s bar and restaurant was commandeered as a makeshift library. On the September day some of the first students arrived, they were treated to the spectacle of the Miss America parade sashaying past on the Boardwalk.

“The Mayflower, at St. James and Tennessee,” Harvey Kesselman says, shaking his head at the memory of the hotel where he started his first semester at Stockton, in the inaugural class of the southernmost state college. “It wasn’t really condemned, but it almost seemed that way.” Kesselman ended up spending his entire career at Stockton, where he now serves as president.

As he recounts those threadbare, pioneering days at the Mayflower, Kesselman stands before a panoramic window in a sleek and airy new building, surveying the campus Stockton opened in fall 2018. The new campus marks a return to Atlantic City, 24 blocks south of the long-since demolished hotel where it was born. “We didn’t get here in a straight line; we got here circuitously,” says Kesselman. “Sometimes that’s the way the world works.”

The new three-story academic building, with an atrium interior that subtly evokes a cruise ship, occupies the site of the old Atlantic City High School, where Kesselman did his student teaching while studying at Stockton. Across Atlantic Avenue, a 533-bed dorm with sweeping ocean views fills the Boardwalk block that had once been home to the Mayfair Apartments and the President Motor Lodge. Buses shuttle regularly to the main campus 15 miles away on the mainland in Galloway.

The new campus was built on vacant land at the southern edge of the city, a departure from an earlier proposal that would have carved the space out of the shuttered Showboat casino. After the Showboat plan imploded spectacularly four years ago, Stockton’s then president lost his job, and the university’s board of trustees tapped Kesselman as interim replacement. (He has since been named to the permanent post.) The administrator has held so many different positions across so many years that he is often referred to as Mr. Stockton.

“Most of us were very, very happy when he didn’t go to Maine and instead stayed here at Stockton as president,” says Donnetrice Allison, professor of communications studies and Africana studies and president of the faculty senate. Kesselman had been serving as provost and executive vice president, but planned to leave to become president of the University of Southern Maine. “Harvey was definitely the right president at the right time, given how everything ended.”

In July 1971, Richard Dovey took a Sunday drive with his father from their Burlington County home to the college he was planning to attend, but had not yet seen. “There were four log cabins on one side of the lake, and you could see some steel above the pine trees on the other side,” he recalls. “My dad said, ‘You’re not going to school here in September.’”

His father was right. Dovey enrolled, but by the time classes started, the school had moved to the Mayflower. “In the elevator, you had these middle-aged people with suitcases coming from Wilkes-Barre or Binghamton or wherever, and then you had these long-haired kids riding to class,” says Dovey, president of the Atlantic County Utilities Authority and former president of the Stockton University Foundation. Classes switched to the Galloway campus after the first 12-week trimester, but Dovey continued to live at the Mayflower, hitching rides back and forth. “We didn’t have any rules. We were on our own, but that was also the philosophy of the school: You were an adult and should be able to figure out life yourself. You had to grow up quick or fall by the wayside.”

That philosophy was what attracted Harvey Kesselman, who first heard about Stockton after high school when he was working at a Long Beach Island gas station. One of his regular customers was an administrator who was helping to get the new school started and who saw in the long-haired kid filling his tank, and heard in the conversations they had, a kindred spirit he thought would fit well there. 

“We were founded at the height of the Vietnam War, and we had veterans coming out of the service who obviously wanted to be treated as adults. On top of that, you had the whole counterculture anti-authority movement,” Kesselman says. “The whole concept of in loco parentis was gone. It was idealistic, obviously, but it certainly allowed a lot of student input.” 

Kesselman commuted to classes in the Mayflower from his home in Manahawkin. “Being part of that group, on the ocean like that—it’s not like anywhere else, and to actually replicate that experience almost 50 years later is simply mind-blowing,” he says.

He briefly taught high school math and social studies before taking a temporary job in 1979 at Stockton as a tutor and advisor in the Educational Opportunity Fund program, which helps support students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The long lines of enthusiastic students waiting outside Kesselman’s office convinced the president to hire him full time. He never left, rising steadily through the ranks and earning a doctorate in higher-education administration. 

“I’ve gotten a lot more out of Stockton than I’ve given to Stockton,” he says. He still carries his first staff ID card with the long hair and beard that are long gone. “I don’t know who I am sometimes other than Stockton.”

“I would be telling you an untruth if I said I ever thought that Stockton would be returning to the city, because for so long the city’s image was dominated by gaming.”

Through its early years
, Stockton had a reputation as the hippie college in the pines, separated by a causeway and a couple of generations from the mid-century, cocktail-lounge ethos of Atlantic City. It kept its distance after gambling arrived and casino jobs started luring students away before they graduated.

“I would be telling you an untruth if I said I ever thought that Stockton would be returning to the city, because for so long the city’s image was dominated by gaming,” says Frank Gilliam, a Stockton graduate and the mayor of Atlantic City, where the fiscal drain from several casino closures led to a state takeover of the local government in 2016.

But as gambling shriveled and Stockton grew, bumping up against the Pinelands building limits imposed on its Galloway campus, Atlantic City beckoned with fire-sale prices. “You’re talking about a $1.2 billion piece of property at its height for $18 million,” Kesselman says, referring to the onetime value of the Showboat and the price Stockton paid for it in 2014. “And if there’s no covenants, that’s a pretty good deal.”

But it turned out there was a legal covenant preventing the property from being used as anything but a casino, and after much controversy and acrimony, Stockton flipped it in January 2016 to a new owner, Showboat Renaissance LLC, a corporation set up by developer Bart Blatstein. “It would have been difficult to create a university utilizing a casino for both academic and residential living,” Kesselman says. “And it’s never going to be us.”

So instead of converting a defunct casino into a college, Stockton looked south, to a vacant parcel for which a series of ambitious casino projects had been proposed over the last 30 years, but never built. It didn’t buy the property on its own this time, but joined a nonprofit development company, AC Devco, in a $220 million public-private partnership that also resulted in an adjacent new headquarters for South Jersey Gas. Stockton’s share for its new 6.2-acre home, eight blocks south of the Tropicana, was $178 million for the development and construction of the campus.

“Any time you have new construction anywhere in the city that hasn’t really had a whole lot of non-gaming construction, it sends a very favorable message to the market,” says Gilliam. “It’s a godsend, because it’s not very easy for any municipality to turn its branding, as well as its expectations, around.”

Similar public-private partnerships have expanded the footprint of Rutgers and Rowan universities in New Brunswick and Glassboro. “I’m seeing more of this: campuses that are looking to invest off campus in other parts of the community,” says Thomas Harnisch, director of state relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “It can help create new businesses that can help weather economic downturns better than the current portfolio of businesses in Atlantic City.”

Stockton has brought almost 150 jobs to the city, and South Jersey Gas has added another 200. Additionally, AtlantiCare has opened an urgent-care center in a street-level storefront of the new parking garage the university and the gas company share. Several new neighborhood businesses have opened, including a pizzeria and an ice cream shop, and several others are expanding or renovating.

As Kesselman stands at that wide window in the new building, he points across the street at O’Donnell Memorial Park, a triangle of green anchored by the rotunda of the World War I memorial. Now he is ticking off the bordering properties where he hopes Stockton might expand in the future. It reminds him of another city park, Washington Square in Manhattan, around which New York University grew.

“Think about it—it’s got that potential. And we’ve got one thing that [Manhattan] doesn’t,” he says, sweeping his arm toward the oceanfront. “Take a look at that.”  

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