Our righteous regents

April 15, 2002|By James L. Fisher

THE BOARD of Regents of the University System of Maryland appointed a new president of Towson University to raise the flag of the state's best-kept secret.

The new president of less than nine months certainly raised the flag and was fired.

The economy went south and the flag caught ill winds, and, of course, the regents were right in their indignation about the behavior of the newly inaugurated but stillborn president.

Whoever heard of paying nearly $2 million for a "mansion," $56,500 for an inauguration and $25,000 for a medallion?

Thank God they stopped him before he bought the mace; no telling what he might have done with that.

And apparently he had a penchant for "mansions." The University of Wisconsin-Green Bay wanted to get rid of him so badly that countless references from faculty, students, staff, board members and elected officials concealed his $130,000 housing indulgence and instead praised his good work of more than seven years. To think that this combination could possibly help improve Towson's modest-minus endowment was downright unenlightened.

And, of course, a new president with an annual budget of $223 million and a temporary chief financial officer should be expected to know the financial details involved in renovating his "mansion."

After all, he had been on the job for nearly nine months and all he had to do was evaluate and replace personnel; learn the intricacies of the budget process, the academic programs and the various procedures associated with the several layers of state bureaucracy; and be out almost every night giving speeches or meeting people.

Surely that left sufficient time to attend to the details of the "mansion." Just like the leaders of the legislature were expected to know the financial details of the extras and additions to the Miller Senate Office Building. At this point, the state Department of Legislative Services can't even total the amount; no telling how many of them will finally be fired.

Is this the same board that scarcely two weeks ago appointed a top national leader as the new chancellor who will live in a $6 million-plus mansion? That the chancellor has absolutely no constituency, no students, no faculty and no alumni matters not. He doesn't even have tickets, golf passes or parking places to give away to dedicated board members.

But he does need a comfortable place to sleep, and who would ever think of giving him a housing allowance and selling the "mansion"? Who knows, maybe people will start giving to the university system rather than to their alma maters and Maryland will establish a fund-raising precedent for the rest of the country. Think of the chorus singing "Hail Dear Old System."

And could this really be the board whose chairman, accompanied by the governor and a host of other festooned regents at the inauguration just three weeks ago, paid such grand praise as a preamble to putting the $25,000 medallion around the neck of the now disgraced president?

That everyone in the place knew about the Towson "mansion" at the time was confirmation that the generous behavior of the regents was simply a gesture of good grace. They must have bit their tongues as they applauded and shook hands with the soon-to-be-deposed president. What remarkable composure.

Is this the same board that didn't even wince at a $1 million-plus salary for the College Park football coach and will probably do the same for the national champion men's basketball coach? Of course, everybody knows you have to pay to win. And what do the national studies know when they conclude that big-time athletics contribute nothing at all to our universities, except sometimes a slight ripple of vandalism after a big win or loss?

It's hard to believe that this righteous group is the same board that reportedly tried to slip the governor into the $375,000-a-year chancellorship and got caught. And, of course, its members are understandably anxious to get on with their renaissance of the academy before any more of them are unjustly exposed to charges of pandering, payoffs or conflict of interest.

It's only natural that the board should now consider appointing the outgoing governor to the presidency of Towson University. Look at the goodwill he could create in the philanthropic community. And, besides, who wants to pay for another university search and have to consider a raft of qualified candidates who would be happy to serve under such a devoted public board? And, heaven forbid, they might find another president as qualified as the one they just fired.

And finally, let's put to rest the notion once and for all that the regents should resign en masse and the university system should be abolished, like they did in New Jersey and Florida. That they approve more money for Maryland universities than the state of Virginia just proves that public higher education in Maryland is far superior to that in Virginia. Everybody knows that Virginians always want to send their kids to Maryland public universities.

The sky isn't really falling; it's only raining nonsense.

James L. Fisher, president emeritus of Towson University and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, has been a trustee at seven private colleges and universities.

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