The price of free speech

May 27, 2001|By Barry Rascovar

HOKE SMITH presided over his final commencement at Towson University last week.

Not by choice: He was the victim of a shotgun divorce.

His mistake: Speaking his mind.

Academic freedom doesn't count for some of those who govern higher education. What Dr. Smith said displeased a few powerful people at University System of Maryland headquarters. They held a gun to his head and told him to retire.

Perhaps this was inevitable. Dr. Smith was never a slick political operator. Too philosophic. Too much the thoughtful professor.

That's a grand quality for stimulating creative discussions on university goals and governance, but not for pressing the governor for funds or lining up support from the board of regents.

Towson University has come a long way under Dr. Smith. Back in 1979, he inherited from James L. Fisher a former state teachers college on the rise. He's continued that upward trend.

Course offerings expanded, campus housing soared, building expansions and conversions never stopped and the caliber of faculty and students kept climbing.

The campus of 15,000 draws attention as a great academic buy.

And Dr. Smith, 70, achieved this without much help from Annapolis. Towson regularly missed out at budget time. In his 22 years, he never saw a new, state-financed building open on campus.

Things got so bad one year that when budget analysts recommended cuts in Towson's lawn-mowing equipment, Dr. Smith told lawmakers he might as well turn loose a herd of goats on campus and let them do the grass-cutting.

Such comments might have brought a chuckle back at Towson, but not in political Annapolis.

He had trouble winning over the regents, too. The panel never made Towson U. a priority.

But in 1998 he landed a slot on the Larson commission, set up by the legislature to redesign higher-education governance.

That proved a wise move. Dr. Smith was a positive presence, an experienced college leader who knew first-hand how USM's rigid, centralized system had strangled campus vitality.

But then he decided to give the commission his unfiltered view of the best future direction for Towson - independence from USM, similar to what's worked so well at Morgan State University and St. Mary's College.

The regents and central office haven't "understood nor valued the role of a large, complex, metropolitan, comprehensive university," he said. There's no vision. It hasn't worked. Other options, such as independence, should be explored "if it is feasible."

It wasn't the first time he'd said these things. Nor was he the only one. Just before Dr. Smith spoke, C. D. "Dan" Mote, College Park's new president, had asked for greater autonomy.

That, too, wasn't a new idea. Senate President Mike Miller came out for College Park's full independence.

Yet it was Dr. Smith who drew the ire of regent Lance W. Billingsley and Chancellor Donald N. Langenberg. Insubordination!

Mr. Billingsley led the charge to fire Dr. Smith immediately. He settled for a two-year termination, effective July 1, 2001.

What a travesty - except for Dr. Smith's principled stand. He dared speak his mind. Free speech has profound meaning for him.

In the end, the Billingsley-Langenberg faction failed to sway the commission majority. The campuses gained the right to run their own affairs.

The new setup has vastly improved Towson's ability to govern itself. Dr. Smith had made his point - at a steep personal price.

He leaves at the peak of his popularity on campus. He's revered and adored for taking a principled stand on Towson's behalf, even though he knew there could be severe ramifications.

Not that he's perfect. He's too monastic to be a slick fund-raiser. He doesn't play the political game well. He lacks charisma. He also made some poor choices - such as asking me to speak at his final commencement.(That, too, got him in hot water. Mr. Billingsley tried to rescind Dr. Smith's speaking invitation to me. Pity the regents didn't go along. It would have made a great column.)

But Towson University will remember Hoke Smith's contributions - and the example he set by refusing to be gagged.

If you can't have free, open discussions of ideas in the state's university system, we're all in trouble.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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