At Towson U., a bittersweet parting

Questions linger over reasons for Smith's departure

April 30, 2001|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

As Hoke L. Smith approaches the end of his presidency of Towson University, he is being feted in a style befitting a man who led the school for more than two decades. His departure is the theme of the annual alumni weekend that starts Friday. A $150-a-plate farewell gala is planned Saturday night, and a dance recital will be held in his honor Sunday afternoon.

But there is a bittersweet quality to the praise because, even at 70 years old, Smith is not ready for retirement - he wanted to stay on as president for a few more years.

Smith declines to comment on the circumstances of his retirement, but sources close to the Board of Regents of the University System of Maryland confirm that the board essentially forced him from office - when regents and Smith worked out a deal in 1999 that gave him two more years as president and an additional year's employment in the system. Smith will teach at the University of Maryland, College Park in the fall.

His downfall began when, complaining during the Larson Commission hearings in 1998 about inadequate funding and lack of respect for Towson and its mission, he called for the school to leave the state system, according to the sources, who insisted on anonymity.

But those sources say that although Smith's testimony set in motion the events that led to his departure, it was not the only reason for his retirement. Many regents simply concluded thatit was time for a change at Towson.

The sources deny the widely held belief - on the Towson campus and in some political circles - that Smith was forced out by system Chancellor Donald N. Langenberg because of his Larson Commission stance. Langenberg, who declines to comment on the events that led to Smith's departure, was made to take a similar early retirement by the regents last year.

Instead, the sources say, it was then-board Chairman Lance W. Billingsley who was most incensed by Smith's comments and called for his immediate ouster. That move was not supported by the rest of his regents, but it did put the issue of Smith's tenure on the regents' table.

Billingsley denies that he wanted Smith out at Towson.

"It was absolutely not my idea to seek Hoke's removal," says the Prince George's County lawyer, who is no longer chairman of the regents but remains on the board. "I am not going to tell you who did participate, but I can you that I did not lead that charge and did not participate strongly in the debate when it occurred."

He does confirm that Langenberg was not behind Smith's departure. "If the chancellor of the system is unhappy with the performance of a president, obviously he would make that known," Billingsley says. "It is not fair to say that Don was doing that in this case."

According to sources, the debate over Smith's future followed an angry tirade by Billingsley, focusing at first on whether Smith's remarks constituted insubordination, but then more broadly on the future of Towson and Smith's ability to lead it.

"He had been there 20 years and was approaching 70 years of age," says one of the sources close to the regents. "It is fair to say that, after 20 years, it is hard to expect a president to be able to deliver the same kind of energy, enthusiasm and vision as in the first five."

That view is disputed on Towson's campus, where Smith is widely respected and where the student newspaper reported more than a year ago that Smith was forced to leave because of his Larson Commission testimony.

"Hoke is leaving at the pinnacle of his popularity," says Richard Vatz, a longtime professor of rhetoric. "I think he has become an even better president in the last five years."

Jack Fruchtman, president of the campus senate, agrees. "People revere and respect him today more than ever before," says Fruchtman, a political science professor. "He has garnered an incredible amount of good will in the last six months. When he walks into a room, people give him a standing ovation.

"The campus community has felt from the very beginning that Hoke Smith was given the opportunity to resign or be fired by the regents simply because he did what he was supposed to do in being straightforward and honest in his testimony to the Larson Commission."

Smith's fate has also drawn the ire of politicians.

"I think Hoke was wonderful for that school," says Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore County Democrat who is active in higher education issues.

"I think he was treated very shabbily by a system he devoted a very long time to because he was a truthful person," says Hoffman, who was on the Larson Commission.

John Haeger, who was Towson's provost at the time and also testified before the Larson Commission, said Smith's stance was a major reason he was forced to retire.

"We thought it was our responsibility to the state and to the institution to speak our minds," says Haeger, now provost at Northern Arizona University. "But I still remember our conversation driving down to Annapolis that morning. We knew there could be a price for being that forthright."

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