Embattled Bowie State president generates conflicting reactions Mathematician called polite, abrasive and hard-working

September 10, 1998|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Ivan Penn contributed to this article.

Just minutes after the University System of Maryland's governing board received a harshly critical report on Bowie State University President Nathanael Pollard Jr. during a recent meeting, he stood before them to make an oddly incongruous speech.

Without even a reference to the audit that blasted his administration's misspending of tens of thousands of dollars in scholarship money, Pollard cheerfully and energetically narrated a computerized slide show touting his successes.

"Let me take a few minutes to really boast about our achievements. We really have so much to brag about," the 59-year-old former math teacher boomed, flashing images of students at computers collecting data from a satellite. "We are surpassing the mark for our dreams and our aspirations."

The lack of connection between Pollard's remarks and the grim circumstances of his appearance before the board Aug. 28 is typical of his ambitious yet rocky five-year tenure as head of the 4,800-student college in Prince George's County, say longtime observers of the school.

He came to campus promising radical change, only to be hit with a vote of no confidence from a distrustful faculty. He pledged to raise millions, only to see misspending and scandal in his fund-raising organization.

Now, as university system officials decide whether to punish him for the misspending of $182,000 restricted for scholarships and campus activities, professors and administrators don't know what to make of their brilliant but embattled president.

Is he, as he claims, a victim of dishonest fund-raising employees who racked up bills for extravagances like a cruise and banquets and then left him with the blame?

Or is he, as others argue, a negligent manager who put untrained people in key jobs and then ordered them to spend money improperly?

"I think it's sort of mixed," said Joseph Kum, a professor of political science at the university. "I think he is a breath of fresh air on campus. But I think he's made some mistakes in his management of people. Hopefully, he's learned."

Other observers are not so patient.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he thinks punishment is necessary, since the audit blamed Pollard for much of the misspending.

"I expect the Board of Regents to take punitive actions based on the auditors' findings," Miller said.

John Organ, a Bowie athletics professor and longtime critic of Pollard's, said: "I don't think the Board of Regents can support this kind of behavior. It's going to make it difficult for us to go out and raise money without a change in leadership."

A Bessemer, Ala., native with the serious demeanor of a middle-school math teacher, Pollard earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from Oklahoma University in 1970.

Those who know him describe him an innovative thinker but seemingly more comfortable with ideas than with people. They note that he is a dauntingly hard worker who often shows up to work at 6: 30 a.m. Often very polite, he can also be impatient and harsh with employees, with a tendency to micromanage, according to professors and administrators who work with him.

"I know that there are some concerns about his style," said Professor Nagi Wakim, director of a science program at Bowie State. "But I think his focus is on top academic quality, and that's something I like."

Because fund-raising is a key element of a university president's job, Pollard has tried to modify what co-workers see as his bookish appearance to socialize with wealthy donors.

Alvin Thompson, a tailor at Salvi of Florence Tailoring on 18th St. N.W. in Washington, recalled noticing how worn Pollard's suit looked when Thompson went to his office several times in 1995 to help the scholar with an upscale makeover.

"His jacket was frayed around the cuffs. His suits had a shine from constant pressing. Suits aren't supposed to shine like that," Thompson said.

Pollard bought three custom-made Italian suits and a tuxedo for $3,050, he recalled, and looked better dressed for wining and dining donors.

Money has been the central issue in Pollard's nearly 20-year career as an administrator.

When he took control of Bowie State in July 1993, Maryland's oldest historically black college was trying to recover from slumping enrollment and a financial crisis.

Pollard had lots of experience with financially troubled schools.

From 1980 to 1990, he rose to become associate provost of what is now Clark Atlanta University in Georgia, which suffered layoffs and a multimillion-dollar deficit during his tenure.

Thomas W. Cole Jr., president of Clark Atlanta University, said that Pollard helped solve the financial problems at what was then Atlanta University, before it merged with neighboring Clark College in 1988.

"The university had to tighten its belt and spend less," said Cole. "Dr. Pollard participated in the tough decisions that had to be made, and I think this difficult experience strengthened his leadership abilities."

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