Growing up at Towson U.

April 10, 2002

WHEN MARK L. Perkins suddenly resigned as Towson University's president this week, he characterized his short tenure there as "the grandest nine months of my professional life." Would that Maryland's second-largest public university could claim the same.

Mr. Perkins, who left under threat of firing by the state university system's regents, was brought in to press the flesh and actively market Towson in Annapolis, within the state university system and to potential private donors. He certainly exuded a salesman's air, but he accomplished quite the opposite.

His departure continues the political uncertainties that have afflicted the Baltimore County university since its last president, Hoke L. Smith, publicly complained to the regents in 1998 of state underfunding and suggested the school might do better independent of the state university system. It leaves Towson even less well positioned to solve its real problems: finding a more defined academic focus and the money to carry that out.

Mr. Perkins tackled those tasks by attending to external signs of pomp and power - an almost $2 million Guilford mansion and a showy inauguration replete with a newly minted medallion. Particularly at a time of tight state university budgets, this not surprisingly brought him unwanted notice and, ultimately, regents' questions about his honesty and character.

Given reports of somewhat similar problems during Mr. Perkins' previous job in Wisconsin - problems that the Towson search committee did not seek to educate itself about - the regents and their search firm also have some questions to answer.

Underneath the decision to dump him may be a swirl of regents' politics, including some jockeying over who might eventually succeed Nathan A. Chapman Jr. as the board's chairman. Its vice chairman, Adm. Charles R. Larson, former Naval Academy superintendent, is mentioned as a possible interim Towson president. (Lame-duck Gov. Parris N. Glendening's name has come up as well, but that would turn a bad situation into a disaster.)

Whoever becomes Towson's next leader faces the same challenge as Mr. Perkins, one aptly described by a detailed review of the university commissioned last year as: What does Towson want to be when it grows up?

In many ways, Towson is a solid university, an underappreciated asset in the Baltimore area, its primary market. It has been rated among the top 10 regional public universities in the North and among the top 100 public schools in the United States. The school is getting more selective every year; its freshmen SAT averages are higher than those at 80 percent of all public colleges. Towson also boasts admirably high student retention and graduation rates. And it's the single largest source of teachers and mid-level health professionals in Maryland.

But in offering a cafeteria with an endless academic menu to its 16,000 students, Towson has spread itself too thin.

The university may not have many, if any, major weaknesses, but it offers few stellar programs. (Its occupational therapy program, an exception, is among the nation's top 15.) There has been talk of bulking up its graduate and research programs, but that would put the school into conflict with the University of Maryland, College Park and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. That also would not jibe so well with the nature of much of Towson's current faculty, whose research productivity generally was found to be "immature" by that review last year.

Already, too many Towson classes - almost 40 percent - are taught by low-paid, part-time and adjunct faculty, not professors. The percentage of the school's education budget actually spent on instruction went through a significant and continuous decline in the 1990s.

Undergirding this picture is low funding by any measure.

Towson's level of state financial support is near the bottom among all state schools. It hasn't received state money for a big building project in more than two decades. Many of its facilities are said to be deteriorating or outdated. Its library is in need of major investment.

And although Towson has almost 90,000 living alumni, its endowment is only about $12 million - less than some of Baltimore's private K-12 schools. At one point in recent years, its fund-raising expenses were running as high as 77 percent of its donations.

With Mr. Perkins leaving, these academic and financial problems aren't solved. Under new leadership, Towson still will need to define more sharply its niche and become more effective at luring funding to achieve its aims.

It needs to concentrate its resources more directly on certain strengths - so that it ends up, as last year's review advised, with a "smaller number of programs of high quality than a larger number of programs of mediocre quality." And it needs to make peace within the not-always-collegial family of 13 institutions governed by the state university regents board and, at the same time, strike a much higher profile on its own.

This is what growing up is all about - not about grand houses and shiny medallions, not about salesmanship before actual accomplishment.

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