In the latest setback in Towson University's search for leadership, a California administrator withdrew his candidacy for the school's presidency yesterday -- just three days before he was expected to be given the job.
Robert L. Caret, a former Towson provost and professor, said he has decided to remain as president of San Jose State University after giving "serious thought" to returning to be Towson's president.
Regents of the University System of Maryland say that the board had been planning to vote on Caret as president at its meeting Friday. In an unusual move, Towson's presidential search committee had forwarded Caret's name to the regents without those of any other finalists -- proof, regents said, of how much the search panel wanted Caret.
"This is a big disappointment," said one regent, who asked not to be named because of the strict confidentiality rules surrounding the search. "Usually they send us two or three names, but [Caret] was so attractive to everybody that they wanted to make that point" by nominating only him.
Jim Clements, the Towson professor leading the search committee, put a brighter face on Caret's decision, saying other strong candidates remained, even if none had been recommended yet to the regents.
Caret "had a large level of support. He had an outstanding record here, and he did outstanding work where he was," Clements said. "But there are other good people out there, and we're going to find one."
Caret's withdrawal further prolongs Towson's quest for a leader to replace Mark L. Perkins, who resigned in April after nine months as president. Perkins left under pressure from the regents after articles in The Sun and a subsequent state audit reported that Towson had spent nearly $1 million to renovate its new $850,000 presidential mansion in Baltimore's Guilford neighborhood.
University officials said months ago that they hoped to have a new president in place by January. The renovated mansion has been standing unused since April because interim President Dan Jones, the university provost, did not move in, and neighborhood covenants forbid Towson from entertaining at the house if no one lives there.
Last night, Clements said that a new president probably won't take office until July. "The objective is to find the best person we can. The schedule is secondary," he said.
Clements said that the 25-member search committee has interviewed 10 of the 90 people who applied for the job and that the panel is still receiving applications.
But a separate 25-member campus group, which was convened by the search committee last month to interview finalists after campus complaints that it was being too secretive, has been introduced to only one candidate, Caret.
Clements and regents said Caret had decided to stay at San Jose State after California university system officials promised him significantly increased financial support, either for his own salary or for his campus.
The San Jose presidency pays $222,540 a year. Perkins earned $208,000 a year as Towson president, but regents say the salary is likely to be increased for the next president.
In a written statement yesterday, Caret, 55, said he had decided to stay in San Jose after "an outpouring of support from family, the campus, the community and the leadership of the system and state."
"Over the last eight years, my family and I have become an intimate part of the [San Jose State] family," he said. "We enjoy the family and want to help it grow and evolve."
Caret, a native of Maine, was at Towson for 21 years, arriving as a chemistry professor and serving as provost for seven years before leaving for San Jose in 1995. In that time, faculty and administrators say, he acquired a reputation as a leader with a strong presence who often acted as the public face of the university in place of the reserved President Hoke L. Smith.
At 30,000-student San Jose State University, Caret won state support for the $244 million first phase of a new campus housing village and a $177 million city-university library. He has also worked to boost the university's football program at a time when low attendance is threatening its elimination from Division I, under National Collegiate Athletic Association rules.
Caret's wife, Elizabeth Zoltan, who is a college administrator, applied unsuccessfully for a deanship at Towson several months ago, faculty members said yesterday.
Most people on the Towson campus agree that the university needs a president like Caret who is skilled at building state support. At the same time, Caret's imminent selection had generated protest in some quarters.
Some faculty members recalled moments when they said he had been abrasive in exercising his authority as provost. Others worried that Caret was being nominated on the basis of his Towson connections -- most notably, his friendship with regent David H. Nevins, a Towson graduate who is on the search committee.
There has also been widespread concern about the closed nature of the search, with some faculty members warning that hiding candidates from the campus at large could result in a president as disappointing as Perkins. A petition recently posted in the English department urged regents to curtail the search and start over.
Clements said yesterday that Caret gave no indication that his decision to turn down Towson was connected to campus criticisms of the search. There is also no sign, Clements said, that Caret was wary of the turbulence that surrounded Perkins.
"We haven't heard much from any candidate about the previous presidency. People view Towson as a very strong institution, and that hasn't been an issue," he said. "Bob's chancellor just said, `I want to keep you, and tell me what we need to do to keep you.'
"His chancellor didn't want to let him go."