Mansions ought to make rich donors feel at home

The Education Beat

Colleges: Institutions find that luxury is a necessity.

The Education Beat

March 31, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

YES, THAT $25,000 gold medal they draped around the neck of Towson University President Mark L. Perkins at his inauguration was an example of wretched excess, even if taxpayers didn't pay for it.

But the $850,000 mansion in Guilford, with its $600,000 in renovations? In the garden of college and university presidential residences, it's a common marigold.

Million-dollar, even multimillion-dollar homes for university presidents are common across the country. They're usually supplied, along with cars, country club memberships, lucrative corporate board positions (paying well into five figures) and other perks as part of a president's compensation package.

It's all in the name of finding university friends with money and influence, which has become the major job of the university chief, public or private. The men and women who run colleges and universities become what one prominent sociologist calls "living logos" for their campuses. In the 21st century, they need luxury to create luxury.

You can argue that Perkins could have done without the $25,000 "entertainment center" and that Towson should have conducted a competent house inspection before signing on the dotted line. You could also argue that the Towson president should at least live in Towson.

But Perkins, in addition to fund raising, presides over a $223 million budget. He's entitled to a house commensurate with his responsibilities.

Some on the Towson campus believe that the ruckus over the Perkins manse wouldn't have occurred at College Park, the flagship campus of the University System of Maryland. There's a sort of reverse snobbery at work here, they say: A lesser light deserves fewer perks.

We'll never know. The presidential house at College Park is on campus, though not at its heart. It's nicer than most but certainly not in the mansion class. The university could sell it for well into the six figures.

When William E. "Brit" Kirwan left that house four years ago to take up the presidency of Ohio State University, he and his family moved into a $600,000 university-owned house in suburban Columbus. Last year, very quietly, the Kirwans moved to a $2.3 million house not far away that had been donated to the university by a wealthy Columbus developer.

And now that Kirwan is returning to Maryland as chancellor of the university system, he'll be residing at the most lavish state-owned presidential house, Hidden Waters. It's a 12,606-square-foot mansion on 125 acres in northwest Baltimore County donated from the estate of a prominent lawyer and businessman.

I've been to Hidden Waters. You can hardly see from one end of the house to the other. The property and mansion were valued at $3.1 million - 21 years ago.

Every so often, a delicious story of wretched university extravagance finds its way into the press. I'd put the $25,000 medallion in that category. Then there have been full-blown scandals.

In the 1980s, a University of Minnesota president lost his job when it was revealed he planned to spend a bundle of public money renovating his home. Some years ago, the president of Frostburg State College commissioned $6,200 in outdoor sculptures, using taxpayers' money. It was one reason he was soon out of a job.

Last year, North Carolina taxpayers paid $20,186 to replace a single chandelier in the university system president's beautiful, publicly owned mansion. Letters to the editor played on the dim bulb theme.

Some presidents live on campus, but many consider it a hassle. Calvin W. Burnett, longtime president of Coppin State College, is among many school heads who have moved and left the on-campus house for ceremonial affairs.

On-campus residency has liabilities. Robert Chambers, former president of Western Maryland College, where the presidential home is at the center of activity, returned from a weekend out-of-town trip to find that his teen-age son had played host to a raucous party. The son was campused.

For Maryland university system presidents who don't like the idea of stepping outside in pajamas to pick up the morning paper and confronting an angry demonstrator, Maryland provides a $25,000 housing allowance for off-campus living.

That would pay my mortgage and then some, but I don't have to raise $20 million during a recession or manage a nine-figure budget while trying to figure out whether my education professors are teaching phonics.

An SAT proposal to ponder and puzzle

The College Board is considering dropping analogies from the SAT, a move that's 44 years too late for me. But what will the SAT be without analogies? Analogies are to the SAT as (choose one):

A. Oil is to the Bush administration.

B. Test prep classes are to the ability to master analogies.

C. Bikinis are to Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue.

D. Parallel parking is to a driver's test.

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