Regents board grills Perkins

Towson head's mansion runs up even further costs

President's job in jeopardy

April 06, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

The state university system's Board of Regents confronted Towson University President Mark L. Perkins yesterday with findings showing that he spent several hundred thousand dollars more than his office's estimate of $595,000 for renovations at his new president's mansion.

After grilling Perkins during a four-hour closed session, regents said they will decide at their regular meeting next week whether to dismiss Perkins over the cost of his improvements to the $850,000 mansion in Baltimore's Guilford neighborhood.

"Whatever happens will be decided next Friday," said Board Chairman Nathan A. Chapman Jr. "We had a good discussion with Mark."

Towson officials told The Sun last month that the improvements and repairs cost $595,000, but a subsequent audit by the regents has found that the total price tag greatly exceeded that, sources said yesterday.

Most of the spending, which comes as the state is facing budget cuts and rising tuition, was paid for out of the university's operating budget.

"A lot of regents are very, very concerned," said one regent who asked not to be identified. "It blindsided the system. But we believe that justice will prevail."

One Towson employee, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution, said yesterday that the university held down the stated cost of the upgrades by telling Towson workers not to report the overtime hours they put in at the house. The understanding was that the workers would be paid later for the work, the employee said.

Towson spokeswoman Susanna Craine said she was unaware of any expenses above the $595,000 disclosed by the university. She said Perkins would not comment on the regents' proceedings until after their meeting next Friday.

The regents' emergency session yesterday, at system headquarters in Adelphi, took place three weeks after the formal induction of Perkins, who arrived at Towson last summer from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. The inauguration, which was attended by several regents, cost $56,500, not including a $25,000 gold medallion worn by Perkins that was made for the occasion and paid for by private gifts.

University sources said that Towson had also planned to commission a medieval-style mace to accompany the medallion at ceremonies. Those plans are on hold.

"There is no mace," Craine said. "The project is off the docket."

Expenditures

Regents said yesterday that the spending on the mansion greatly upset board members because it appeared to contradict claims last summer by Perkins and other Towson officials when they sought permission to buy the house at 3903 Greenway, five miles from campus.

The regents had encouraged Towson to find a house in the $500,000 range, but Towson officials said the $850,000 house was a good buy because it would require minimal work.

"They kept coming up here with million-dollar houses and we made very clear that nothing was going to be approved in the million-dollar range," said the regent.

The Sun reported last month that the expenditures included a $25,000 home entertainment system, Persian rugs for $30,000, and an elevator from the basement to the third floor at about $70,000. Towson officials said they also had to replace a flawed air conditioning system and damaged floors, both of which they said they were unaware of when they bought the house.

`Absolute surprise'

Regents said yesterday that the board and system staff learned of the spending in last month's newspaper reports. They waited until now to meet with Perkins partly because they were preoccupied with the search for a new chancellor, which ended last week.

"One of the problems was that nobody knew what was happening," the regent said. "Everybody was taken by absolute surprise."

Last month, Towson officials justified the improvements by saying that the house would provide the elegant setting needed to court potential contributors to the 16,000-student school, the second largest in the state system. The regents hired Perkins in hopes that he would increase Towson's relatively meager endowment, Perkins noted.

Former Towson President James L. Fisher said it was surprising for the regents to be reprimanding Perkins for taking steps to follow their mandate.

"Based on what I know, there is nothing he's been party to that is inconsistent with the traditions of higher education," said Fisher. "It seems to me he was doing what the board appointed him to, because the house and inaugural are both about raising Towson's profile and raising money."

One former regent said Perkins' problem was the scale of Towson's spending. Many university presidents have nice houses and medallions, the former regent said, but Towson's spending was high for a public campus with a tight budget.

"It's one thing to create an image, but it's another to create an illusion," he said. "Here you've got a poor institution, and it's like a king coming into a village and saying he needs a new set of clothes."

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