Towson U finds costly path to proper mansion

New $850,000 home for president needed work -- and upgrades

Total cost: $1.4 million

March 07, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

When Towson University bought an $850,000 mansion last summer to house its new president, university officials justified the cost by saying the building was in excellent shape and would require minimal renovations.

Seven months later, Towson has spent about $597,000 upgrading the six-bedroom house at 3903 Greenway in the north Baltimore neighborhood of Guilford, university officials acknowledge.

The spending is taking place as the state university system faces its bleakest fiscal outlook in a decade and as in-state tuition could rise next year by 5.5 percent, the largest increase in five years.

A state Senate subcommittee voted this week to slash $31 million from the governor's proposed university system budget, which would leave the system with no increase; the Senate budget committee will consider those cuts today.

Towson officials deemed some of the renovations to the 76-year-old house necessary after discovering flaws that they say they were unaware of at its purchase, including termites and damaged floors.

The university's expenses at the house also include a multimedia entertainment system costing about $25,000, rugs for about $30,000 and an elevator from the basement to the third floor that cost, with other handicap-access measures, about $79,000.

The improvements are funded from student fees, rentals of campus facilities and interest on savings, with the Towson fund-raising foundation contributing an undisclosed sum for furniture, officials say. Towson paid for the house with a 10-year loan from the state university system.

University officials maintain that the improvements will pay off in the form of increased private giving to Towson, by providing an elegant setting where the new president, Mark L. Perkins, and his successors can entertain donors.

Towson, the second-largest school in the state university system, has long lagged in its fund raising, and the Board of Regents hired Perkins from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay in hopes that he could increase the school's $12.4 million endowment.

"What people are sharing with me is that people have a tremendous desire for the university to take the next step, to be with the great universities," said Perkins, who took over the $208,000 position last summer but will be formally inaugurated at a $56,000 ceremony next week. Towson "needed to do the things to be sure ... the house could serve best in that function."

Others question the cost.

"There is some consternation that [the house] cost a lot of money and that the university is paying for it, particularly when we are in a recession and it looks like the state budget is not as strong as it's been," said Jack Fruchtman, a TU political science professor and past president of the faculty senate.

The debate over the house reflects the pressures facing public universities as they are expected to make up for reduced state support through private fund raising. Towson ranks second to last among state campuses for per student capital funding, and hasn't had a new building constructed with state money in 25 years.

After the regents selected Perkins last March, Towson officials set about finding a president's house. Hoke L. Smith, Perkins' predecessor, spent most of his 22 years as president living in an apartment in a conference center on campus, and he entertained less than most system presidents.

"There was a universal sentiment expressed in the campus community that they wanted a presidency less introspective and more outward-directed," said Gerard Gaeng, a former president of the Towson alumni association and chairman of the presidential search committee.

Added David Harnage, Towson's new vice president for administration and finance: "This residence is an investment in the future to help recruit and retain capable leadership. One has to look at this building as a strategic asset of the institution, no different than looking at a classroom building."

University officials say they looked at more than 75 homes, working their way outward from the Towson campus. One option was the Towson-owned Auburn House, a 1790 Federal mansion on campus that now houses college offices and has a reception tent in its back yard and plentiful parking nearby. But the house was ruled too small, officials said.

The Guilford house, five miles from campus, was appealing because its 8,900 square feet and seven downstairs rooms are ideal for large gatherings, officials said. The location was attractive, they said, because it reinforces Towson's ties to Baltimore, where it began as a teachers college in 1866.

Perkins, 52, viewed the house and found it to his liking, officials said. He and his wife moved into the house last month, and he said this week that he has played a "limited" role in the renovations.

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