Gold medal day at Towson U as leader installed

President, on mission to boost college, dons $25,000 medallion

March 16, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

Towson University formally installed Mark L. Perkins as its 11th president yesterday at an elaborate inauguration that was sealed when officials draped a $25,000 gold medallion specially made for the occasion around Perkins' neck.

The induction took place half a year after Perkins arrived on campus and amid debate over Towson's spending $1.4 million on its new presidential residence.

In his address at the Towson Center, Perkins said the focus of his presidency would be encouraging faculty at the former teachers college to more closely tailor their instruction methods to individual learning styles.

"Envision a model for today, one that no longer sees us as sorters of winners and losers, but rather as people dedicated to understanding how students learn so we can assist their personal growth and development," said Perkins, wreathed in a gown emblazoned in Towson's trademark black and gold.

"With our history and tradition, and our commitment to the development of the whole person, Towson University is ideally positioned for this 21st-century challenge," added Perkins, a former president of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

The 2 1/2 -hour ceremony, one part of a $56,500 weeklong celebration that included a black-tie ball at the Baltimore Marriott last night, represented more than the formal introduction of Perkins. It was also the symbolic start of Towson's push to raise its endowment and its reputation as the state's second-largest public university - one of the top priorities charged to Perkins by the state university system Board of Regents.

The centerpiece of the celebration was the president's large, gold medallion, which was paid for by donations from alumni and university employees, Towson spokeswoman Susanna Craine said.

The medallion was carried into the arena by a 99-year-old Towson alumna and later presented to Perkins by university system Chancellor Donald N. Langenberg. Its intricate design included the university shield, a floral-and-vine pattern symbolizing the university's growth, and the original earl's coronet and pennants that inspired the Towson logo.

The medallion was suspended on an ornate gold chain that made Langenberg's university system medallion look skimpy by comparison. The chain's design includes a labyrinth, symbolizing the path of human discovery, and Leonardo DaVinci's Vitruvian Man, symbolizing human potential.

Towson alumnus Wayne L. Werner, who made the chain, said it took more than two months to complete. "This is a coronation," he said. "[The medallion] is supposed to be like a wedding ring - [the president] bears the claim of the office."

In their speeches, state officials praised Perkins as the ideal leader of a university seeking to raise its public profile, pointing to his energy and enthusiasm.

"In searching for a new president, the [regents] sought a leader as dynamic as the institution. In Mark Perkins, we found that leader," said Regents Chairman Nathan A. Chapman, Jr. "We could not have found a leader of any greater stature."

Gov. Parris N. Glendening told Perkins: "We will support you in your quest to make Towson one of the best universities in the nation. We expect no less."

Housing costs

Towson officials have pointed to their quest for improvement to justify the new president's house, saying it will help in fund raising.

Lawmakers and some faculty, staff and students have questioned Towson's purchase of the $850,000 house in Baltimore's Guilford neighborhood and subsequent $595,000 in upgrades, including a $25,000 home entertainment system.

It also takes place as lawmakers are considering cutting $31 million from the governor's proposed university system budget. On his first official visit to Annapolis last week, Perkins mostly managed to sidestep criticism of the presidential house as he sought lawmakers' support for Towson.

Most speakers yesterday avoided mention of the controversy. But R. Michael Gill, chairman of the Towson Board of Visitors, won laughs when, after describing the board as Towson's "kitchen cabinet," he joked he perhaps shouldn't be making any "house" references.

Perkins may have made oblique reference to the debate when he thanked state officials for their support "even in recent weeks and current challenges."

The spending on the house was more directly discussed outside the arena, where several dozen students tied the residence to their campaign to win better pay for Towson's janitorial staff, employees of the private company Aramark. "House Party? Thanks for Asking," read one sign. "Got priorities?" read another.

"We're against spending for indulgences when workers on campus are living in poverty," said Neale Stokes, a sophomore from Silver Spring and a leader of the protesters, whose movements were being monitored by campus police.

A day of pageantry

The protest did nothing to dampen the day's pageantry, which included 18 speakers and a 30-minute opening procession by students bearing the flags of 100 nations.

Perkins appeared quite comfortable amid all the attention, smoothly stepping out from behind the lectern at points in his speech and delivering his message with preacher-like fervor.

"Developing the person, and his or her strengths and gifts, is even more compelling for the 21st century," he said. "We must move beyond the old cliche of `lifelong learning' and understand the need to learn for life."

Sun staff writer Mike Bowler contributed to this article.

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