Visit shadowed by The House

The Education Beat

Towson U.: Lawmakers offer school president a little advice amid mansion dispute.

The Education Beat

March 13, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THE TIMING couldn't have been worse.

Towson University had scheduled "Tiger Pride Day" -- a day for lobbying and spreading good will in Annapolis -- long before last week's news reports about The House. That would be new Towson President Mark L. Perkins' $850,000 Guilford mansion, plus $600,000 in luxury renovations, at a time of extremely tight state higher education budgets.

But there it was, Friday. No way to get out of it, even if Perkins wanted to. By 9 a.m., he was on the road in a new university Chrysler with me and two aides. We'd all seen the Sun headline that morning: "College house draws anger. Lawmakers say Towson's spending may lead to oversight."

We all knew The House had vaulted to the top of the list of items Perkins would have to deal with. And we knew powerful politicians with names like Glendening, Taylor, Hoffman, Schaefer and Rawlings would be among those whom Perkins, a stranger to Maryland, would have to glad-hand during the day.

The day didn't go as planned, but it was far from a disaster. Perkins, a 52-year-old former chancellor of a state campus in Green Bay, Wis., seemed to be observing and assessing himself during his five-hour Annapolis sojourn. If he was nervous, he didn't betray it, although his Southern accent, an amalgam from previous lives in Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia, seemed to deepen as the day progressed.

Perkins had an explanation for the apparent excesses of the Guilford mansion. The university had decided to furnish him a splendid house long before he left Wisconsin. His job is to accomplish what his predecessor, Hoke Smith, could not. That is to raise a lot of money, and The House is the first step in boosting Towson's prestige and, eventually, its endowment.

In short, in 2002 luxury begets luxury. It's something thoroughly understood by legislators, which is perhaps why Perkins was never confronted in anger about his new digs. Several teased him. Howard P. Rawlings, the powerful House money man, ambled over just before Perkins picked up a proclamation in the House of Delegates. "That's going to be a nice house," said Rawlings. "It's befitting your stature, too."

Baltimore County Republican Del. Martha S. Klima had mixed-metaphor advice for Perkins, but it was offered helpfully. "Throw some water on the fire as soon as you can," she said, "because right now you've got a red light on your forehead."

Gritting his teeth, Perkins visited Comptroller William Donald Schaefer's suite. Schaefer had predicted in the morning paper that the matter of The House would affect budget deliberations. "I was very disturbed," he'd said. But Schaefer was at his Baltimore office.

Barbara A. Hoffman, chairwoman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee and a Towson alumna and longtime supporter, graciously introduced Perkins on the Senate floor, never mentioning The House. But when Perkins visited her office after adjournment, Hoffman sent word to him and two others seeking an audience that she was exhausted and needed time to gather her thoughts.

The day brightened over a Towson-sponsored buffet. Two busloads of students had been working the lawmakers, urging them to restore millions cut from the university system's budget by a Senate committee. Dressed in Tiger Pride sweats, they were in a mood to get acquainted with their new president. In the group were campus leaders who will be a part of Perkins' inauguration Friday. Because Smith had eschewed a formal inauguration, it will be Towson's first in nearly a half-century.

Then came the governor with still another proclamation, and things really perked up. Perkins introduced Parris N. Glendening, praising his "vision" and record as the "No. 1 cheerleader for higher education in the state of Maryland." Glendening was equally gracious in return.

The governor didn't mention The House, but he did take a swipe at outsiders who criticize public figures. "It's awfully easy to criticize those in the arena," said the governor, paraphrasing Theodore Roosevelt, "when you're sitting on the sidelines." There was a loud round of applause, during which Glendening whispered to Perkins, "Hang in there."

Homeward bound, Perkins received two congratulatory cell phone calls. He pronounced his performance successful, though he'd missed some of those he'd wanted to see. "It was helpful making contacts, making a case for the budget and for this great university," he said. "You know, people are good. ... They want us to do a great job."

Perkins said he recognized the Roosevelt quote because he keeps it nearby in case of crises like that of The House. "The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena," Roosevelt had said, "whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes up short again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming."

Said Towson's 11th president: "Progress is made by crawling into that arena. That's what I'm doing."

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