College Park president seems right at home Leadership: The campus's newest administrator is winning accolades as he settles in at the state's flagship public university.

December 21, 1998|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- Dan Mote has been in Maryland less than four months, but he talks like a native about his new school.

"This is the oldest building on campus," the president of the University of Maryland, College Park said of Rossborough Inn. "The sign says 1804, but it's really older than that. It's 12 miles out of Washington. Apparently there would be an inn about every 12 miles along the main roads, half a day's journey. Washington slept here, Lafayette."

Such attention to detail combined with a friendly, relaxed manner is winning Clayton Daniel Mote Jr. accolades as he takes over the state's flagship public university.

"I get very good vibrations," Sidney L. Gulick, a mathematics professor who chairs the College Park Senate, said of Mote. "Generally speaking, I'm very pleased with what I've seen. His honeymoon isn't over."

Mote -- who started Sept. 1 after the resignation of longtime President William E. "Brit" Kirwan to take the presidency of Ohio State University -- has been given the task of raising the College Park campus to the next level, so that the mention of the University of Maryland will conjure up the same positive images that comes with names such as North Carolina, Virginia and Michigan.

He brings his quick smile and self-effacing laugh to College Park after a career at another of those outstanding public institutions -- the University of California at Berkeley.

"He's used to playing in the big arena," said history professor Ira Berlin. "That's the arena we want to play in."

A recent day for the 61-year-old Mote began with an 8 a.m. breakfast with the executive committee of the campus Senate, about a dozen members of the school's top advisory body of faculty, staff and students. UM work would consume almost every minute of the next 16 hours.

He would spend time with his staff going over various speeches and details of his tasks for this month's commencement. He would meet with two of the Berkeley engineering doctoral students he advises, touring laboratory space at the College Park engineering building that will allow them to work on this campus.

He would drive to Annapolis for a meeting of the task force examining the structure of the state's public higher education system. Back in College Park, he would meet with his two graduate students to go over their work, then attend a night meeting with a firefighters group that has a training facility on the campus. The day would end in the small hours at his campus home, writing a speech to give to a legislative group the next day.

"I don't mind it," he said of the hours. "I like it. It comes with the job."

His work is getting good reviews.

"He has a very down-to-earth way of talking," said Gulick, who has been on the faculty since 1965. "He's got a lot to learn, but he is not afraid to say when he doesn't know something."

Gregory L. Geoffrey came from Penn State University as provost 18 months ago and was understandably concerned about the rather sudden change at the top.

"I am delighted to find that we share the same values and aspirations for the university," Geoffrey said. "He is committed to building a very high-quality academic institution here."

Geoffrey commended Mote's style. "What I like in him is his willingness to openly discuss issues, to throw ideas out on the table and see how people react to them."

The president's office suite in the administration building at the east end of the campus' main quadrangle has the appropriate mix of pomp and busyness. In the midst of the wood paneling and the scurrying staff, two young men stand out.

They are the graduate engineering students in for a few days from Berkeley. Two of about 10 students who still work under Mote (he says he plans to take on a group at Maryland), they are the only people in the office who call the university president Dan.

"He's great," said Arvin Ramind, whose research is on one of Mote's specialties, discs that spin at very high speeds, such as saw blades. "He's more like a friend than your professor."

The other graduate student, Irving Scher, works in Mote's other specialty -- skiing. As Mote tells the story, in 1968 a graduate student approached him with the idea of figuring out why skis turn -- what is actually happening to the ski and the snow as a skier carves a turn.

"I told him we couldn't do that because people wouldn't take your work seriously if you work on things that are fun. You are supposed to work on things that are not fun," said Mote, an avid skier, sailor and mountain climber.

"He came back and challenged me, saying, 'Wouldn't you learn something about how things work, how you can make something work better, and isn't this what research is all about?'

"Then he said the real reason I didn't want to work on skiing was not because it wasn't important, but because I was listening to other people who were telling me not to do it. He said if that was the case, I might as well get a job in industry where there are plenty of people to tell you what do.

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