Elkins: Achievement Without Fanfare

April 12, 1994|By MORRIS FREEDMAN

COLLEGE PARK — College Park. -- The University of Maryland held a memorial service at College Park the other day for Wilson Elkins, who had been its president for nearly a quarter-century, from 1954 to 1978. The campus chapel hosted 150, a fraction of those present at the last several memorial services I attended, which had been for professors.

The campus community never fully appreciated Dr. Elkins' role while he was shaping College Park into a major national institution with an academic reputation reflecting its potential. The present community, I sense, would prefer not be reminded of his quiet emphasis on achievement without extravagance or fanfare.

I came to College Park in 1966, when the campus was still in the throes of metamorphosis. it had long been an athletic power. A legend had it that the previous president, Harry ''Curly'' Byrd, had finally approved a library budget only when challenged to make the university library worthy of its football team.

Dr. Elkins and his academic vice president, Lee Hornbake, used to respect the collective wisdom of the professoriat without diminishing the power and responsibility of the administration. As chairman of English, I was repeatedly encouraged to break precedent as long as I had the support of the department's senior staff. We appointed the first blacks to the department and promoted to professorships the first women.

Although Dr. Elkins had achieved note as a quarterback while at college, he did not favor athletics. In his time, the campus introduced and strengthened a four-year general honors program, which in effect became a kind of small Ivy League college embedded in a huge state university. A Rhodes scholar with a doctorate in economics, he understood the importance of diverse and solid scholarship in higher education. The economics department became a leading center for outstanding specialists with political coloration of every shade.

A colleague early described Dr. Elkins' administrative style as that of a spider at the center of a web reacting to tugs. My friend wanted him to be an activist, to initiate change. It took a while to realize that Dr. Elkins preferred to let change originate in the faculty, to let his deans and chairmen support innovation within the limits of the state's resources, in accord with solid tradition.

He worked harmoniously with state leaders, in particular Steny Hoyer in the State Senate. He resisted what seemed to him radical social or academic experiments, and some felt Dr. Elkins did not move aggressively to welcome minority undergraduates, but I think he chose simply to abide by what was then law and custom.

He enforced strictly rules forbidding liquor on campus and requiring faculty to live within an hour of their offices. I always felt pressure not to waste resources, to use funds, when there was a choice, to strengthen academic infrastructure rather than polish surface. He encouraged administrators to observe sensibly the spirit of campus contracts and regulations but not to neglect their letter.

In spite of his remoteness, he seemed to know the faculty well. Once at a large gathering, I found myself walking alongside him, certain he had no idea who I was. He leaned sideways suddenly, addressing me as ''Freedman,'' and, in a whisper, asked me to identify a new member of the English department his eye had caught.

During the campus unrest of the '60s and early '70s, he presided with firm dignity during turbulent meetings. I remember complaining vigorously about his office giving the order to a squad of local sheriff's deputies to break up an all-night encounter between students and faculty. He heard me out and asked calmly what I would have had him do when he got word that valuable scientific equipment might be damaged if the tense dialogue got out of hand.

Dr. Elkins was unique in the length and character of his tenure. Since his retirement, College Park has seen more than a half-dozen temporary and ''permanent'' successors in his office. He had charge of all the University of Maryland branches with a smaller staff than that which now runs College Park alone.

He was a reserved man, not given to casual talk. He was short and compact with a dour, watchful look and a rare smile. When he left the presidency, he moved into a house up the block from me and I would often see him, in baseball cap and jacket, jeans and sneakers, walking vigorously with his wife, holding hands. We would nod and smile to each other, but we never exchanged a word.

The Diamondback, the campus newspaper, carried the report of the memorial. I saw no announcement of the service, learning about it by chance from a staff member, too late to attend. The news story emphasized his crucial and selfless role in laying the foundation for the university's strength.

I would like to feel that in some important way he might be an example to current campus leaders.

Morris Freedman is professor emeritus of English at the University of Maryland.

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