College chief's legacy Hooker's vision enhances UMBC

July 24, 1992|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Staff Writer

Michael K. Hooker marched into town in 1986 predicting he'd do grand things as president of the University of Maryland

Baltimore County.

Now, as he leaves for another grand undertaking as head of the University of Massachusetts system, he has a one-word assessment of how he did in Catonsville.

"Fabulously.

"I accomplished everything I set out to accomplish in the beginning," he said yesterday.

Today, Dr. Hooker, 46, will take a shovel and break ground on one last pet project, a $20 million expansion of UMBC's library. It's his last planned public event at the campus.

When he officially departs Sept. 1, Dr. Hooker will take to the five-campus UMass system a remarkably robust ego and a preternaturally expansive vision.

Indeed, his goal at UMBC, as he told anyone who would listen, was to create a 21st-century university.

"The overriding vision was to build a new model for the university, the new paradigm," he said. "The new paradigm is the university that gets involved in society, that rolls up its sleeves and wallows in the mire."

That means having the university link hands with business, sending students and teachers out to solve society's problems, doing cutting-edge technological research.

He wasn't just president of a university. He was trying to save the entire Middle Atlantic area with high-tech ideas.

"My passion is to build a region, not to build an institution," he once told a reporter.

A philosopher by training, Dr. Hooker came to UMBC from Bennington College, a feel-good liberal arts school in the hills of Vermont.

He immediately began preaching that Baltimore could save itself by becoming a high-technology center, drawing on the brain power of its universities. He took his vision to countless audiences.

"A lot of people pooh-poohed it as futuristic nonsense," said Tom Chmura, deputy director of the Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC). "I don't think that many people immediately buy into his ideas, but lo and behold, you look out a couple years later and say, 'Gee. A lot of that was really on target.' "

The GBC has now adopted many of Dr. Hooker's goals for rejuvenating the Baltimore economy with high-tech research on and off campus, Mr. Chmura said. But in the competitive world of higher education, Dr. Hooker's ideas also spurred groans and insults.

"Some people didn't like him because he scared the pants off of them," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat and a legislative expert on higher education. "He's not your typical low-key academic. But I like him. He's a visionary."

"Six years ago, people said, 'This guy's nuts,' " said Shaila R. Aery, state secretary of higher education. "They would say, 'All -- we want is for people out here to get along, not be a model for the country.' "

While no one says Dr. Hooker revolutionized education in the area, he has clearly pushed UMBC, once considered a stepchild of the state's college system, into a more prominent place.

In his six years, the average score on the Scholastic Aptitude Test for incoming freshmen rose from 950 to an estimated 1065 for the class starting this September.

The average for black freshmen soared from 812 to an estimated 1050 this fall.

Always the competitor, Dr. Hooker notes gleefully that the scores are almost as good as those at College Park, the system's flagship campus.

He got UMBC involved in high-profile projects such as an underwater archaeology program at the planned Christopher Columbus marine institute in the Inner Harbor, as well as a program in partnership with the National Aquarium in Baltimore to train aquarium managers.

He helped secure the funding for the Meyerhoff scholarship program for promising black students interested in the sciences. The program is considered one of the best in the nation.

"Michael has done a very fine job for UMBC. He got them on the map, so to speak," said University of Baltimore President H. Mebane Turner, who once called a Hooker plan to relocate UB's business school "insane."

Dr. Hooker failed to pull off his biggest dream -- merging UMBC with the University of Maryland at Baltimore into a mega-university, complete with medical and law schools.

"It was just raw politics," he explained, sounding relieved to let someone else wage the war. "But this merger in inevitable. It's the right thing to do. But, obviously, its time has not come."

The time has still not come for another Hooker project -- a proposed 95-acre high-tech research park next to the campus.

The recession staggered the project and community opposition may kill it. He is not a popular man in surrounding neighborhoods.

"The wheels turned so fast for him on this project because he is very slick and cunning," said Kathy Valderas, president of the Maiden Choice Community Association. "Everything fell into place on the political level but they forgot the community people."

Dr. Hooker acknowledged it was "insensitive" not to do a better job selling the project to the community.

Dr. Hooker has turned over those worries to his successor, interim President Freeman A. Hrabowski, one of several well-regarded administrators Dr. Hooker recruited to the campus.

Dr. Hooker's desk is clean, and he spends as much time in Boston as in Baltimore.

As in Maryland, higher education in Massachusetts is an exceedingly political sport played by "very clever people," he said.

UMass, just like the University of Maryland, recently established a new statewide governing system.

And like Maryland, Massachusetts has chopped its spending on colleges severely the past two years. But, things look good anyway, Dr. Hooker said.

The Massachusetts Legislature recently pumped a little more money into the budget for colleges. And the board of trustees there is eager and energetic.

Different state, same idea, said Dr. Hooker.

"The challenge is just the same as it was here: to build a 21st-century institution," he said. "Only there I get to do it with five schools and a medical school."

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