Insult to injury

May 21, 2002

EXACTLY WHEN did university presidents - entrusted with the heights of higher learning - become richly compensated CEOs? These days, both seem never to walk away from disasters of their own making without golden parachutes the size of lottery jackpots.

Take former Towson University President Mark L. Perkins, who resigned last month under threat of being fired. In just nine months at Towson, he made so few friends and raised so many questions with costly and questionable renovations to his would-be presidential mansion that he had to go. Now, Mr. Perkins is soaking the state for a $400,000 severance deal, a state regents' spokesman acknowledges. That's the equivalent of about two years of his salary as president.

Nice work if you can get it. But for Maryland taxpayers, it only adds insult to injury.

According to a tally by Sun reporter Alec MacGillis, Mr. Perkins' severance package brings the cost of his tenure to about $2.5 million - including presidential search consultant fees, that Guilford mansion, its unexpected improvements, and much of Mr. Perkins' first-year salary.

This comes as the state is in the last year of a negotiated settlement with Towson's president for 22 years before Mr. Perkins. Hoke L. Smith, who retired under political pressure, is making more than $180,000 a year to teach at the University of Maryland, College Park. For those keeping score, that's two parachutes aloft above Towson.

This also comes at a time of tight state university budgets, which recently prompted state regents to raise tuition next fall by 5.5 percent, breaking a vow to hold such increases to 4 percent. That's the real tragedy in all this: The money spent to attract, satisfy and, ultimately, get rid of Mr. Perkins could have been spent on educating students.

Mr. Perkins knows how that works. A few weeks before he resigned, he complained of how tight budgets translate to limited course offerings. How many classes - taught by part-time faculty making less than $3,000 a class - does $400,000 buy?

The only good news here is that Mr. Perkins' severance package means Towson doesn't have to keep him on as a tenured professor. Maybe it's worth it after all.

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