When the University of New England needed a new provost this year, its president was almost afraid to ask one person who seemed like a great candidate for the position.
James J. Koelbl was just two years into a demanding job as founding dean of the university's dental school, and taking on the role would mean doing both jobs for a while.
The inaugural class of 64 dental students was about to arrive, and the university was on a growth spurt, with a four-year-old pharmacy school and a soon-to-open campus in Tangier, Morocco. From 2001 to 2012, the private, nonprofit university's enrollment had doubled, to 5,666 full- and part-time undergraduate and graduate students.
When Dr. Koelbl accepted the challenge this past summer, "I told him to take his vitamins and wear his roller skates," says the president, Danielle N. Ripich. "We've added two colleges in five years. In New England, where most colleges haven't added a major in years, that's sort of warp speed."
Dr. Koelbl, who is 64, says that while he would have liked to throw himself into the provost's job full time, "I believe that to continue to grow, you have to constantly put yourself in uncomfortable, challenging situations."
He adds that he has a good team in place at the dental school, and that "to be honest—and deans may not want to hear this—but once you get things up and running, the dean is probably the most dispensable person in the building." He will be both provost and dental-school dean until a permanent dean is named, probably by next summer.
When he was hired as dean, Dr. Koelbl had asked the president to consider him for a broader role in the administration if one opened up. He branched out by chairing search committees for deans of medicine and health professions.
Even though the university has a strong health-education focus, the path from dental dean to provost is hardly well trodden, a reality that his dental colleagues around the country recognized in a flood of congratulatory messages.
"To them it's like one of our own made it over the wall," Dr. Koelbl says.
In addition to 20 years in full- and part-time private practice, Dr. Koelbl was founding dental dean at Western University of Health Sciences, in California, and dean of West Virginia University's dental school.
He was an administrator at Loyola University Chicago when it closed its 70-year-old dental school, in 1993, a time when several schools shut down amid concerns of a dentist glut.
As dentists retire and the population ages, experts now predict a shortage of dentists. New schools have opened, and the number of applicants has grown 63 percent since 2001, to 12,077.
To help draw them to northern New England's only dental school, Dr. Koelbl's college offers students extra hands-on experience through community-based clinics and exposure to patients in their first year.
"Folks who are going to practice in rural areas need to be better and more broadly trained than those who will be in practice with 15 other dentists in the building," he says.
As he steps into a broader role himself, Dr. Koelbl says he's looking forward to helping advance the president's ambitious plans. In addition to offering more online courses, New England will open a campus in January at the American School of Tangier, to appeal to students seeking a global experience.
"We're not manic or crazy, but we do have fun continuing to expand the university," Dr. Koelbl says. "Not in a haphazard way, but in a strategic way."