He's restoring order at Towson

University: Robert L. Caret will be installed today as president, with the mission of raising the school's profile.

November 07, 2003|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

When Robert L. Caret, the new president of Towson University, ventures out to talk about his vision for the school, he often gets asked about something else. "Everyone wants to know about the elevator," he says.

"The elevator," of course, refers to one of the standout features of the mansion in Baltimore's Guilford neighborhood that Towson purchased and renovated - at a cost of $1.8 million - for Caret's predecessor. Mark L. Perkins resigned last year under fire for the spending, leaving it to an interim president and now Caret to handle the fallout and get the state's second-largest public university back on track.

Four months into the job, Caret will be formally installed today. He says he's enjoying his role as a restorer of order at Towson, where he served as a chemistry professor and provost for 21 years before leaving in 1995 to be president of San Jose State University.

"I came back because I thought I could give [the university] that stability and leadership," said Caret, 56. "People are coming up and hugging me and saying, `Thanks for being here.'"

Caret returned at a critical juncture for the 15,000-student campus. In addition to coping with the effects of the brief Perkins reign, he is under pressure from the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents to raise Towson's profile and improve its fund raising.

To that end, Caret has been busy meeting with local and state lawmakers, area business leaders and others to talk about his plans for the university. He's been encouraged by strong statements of support from leaders of the university system and from lawmakers - groups that some feel slighted the school in the past.

And, yes, that networking has included cocktail parties at the mansion in the 3900 block of Greenway. After one year of renovations and another year of sitting vacant (interim President Dan L. Jones opted not to move in), the 8,900-square-foot house is being used for the purpose for which it was intended.

This week, Caret made use of the $25,000 plasma-screen television that Perkins purchased: It displayed a high-tech presentation of the campus master plan to the university's Board of Visitors.

`Great media system'

"It's a great media system," Caret said. "I wouldn't go out and buy it, but since it's there, I'm going to use it."

The university's second big challenge of the moment is preparing for the continued increase in enrollment as the "baby boom echo" nears its peak.

As the state's largest comprehensive (as opposed to research-based) university, Towson is expected to absorb a good part of the increase.

Caret said the university is willing to take in 300 more students a year for the next decade as long as the fiscally strapped state provides the money to replace aging buildings. Towson has obtained preliminary approval for a classroom complex estimated to cost $100 million.

Most important, Caret said, is that the application surge doesn't force Towson to be more selective than it wants to be. Towson rejects more students than it accepts, and the mean SAT score of entering freshmen is nearing 1100.

That's great for the school's reputation, Caret said, but might not be good for the state if too many deserving students are denied access. "We need to make sure we don't become too elite," he said.

This is a different note than was sounded by Perkins, who justified the spending on the mansion because it would help Towson "be with the great universities" of the country.

Caret has issued few grand statements but says he has some ideas for change. He'd like to see Towson put a greater emphasis on its academic strong suits, such as teacher education and dance. He'd like to find new ways to assess student progress. And he would like to create joint degree programs with other local colleges. But he'll wait to proceed with major initiatives until the university names a provost in the coming months.

Faculty members appreciate Caret's attempt to reacquaint himself with the campus before making big moves.

`Trying to go slowly'

"He seems to be trying to go slowly and feel his way, and I think that's good," said Jack Fruchtman Jr., a political science professor.

Those who disliked Caret as provost and circulated petitions opposing his appointment to the $278,000-a-year president's job appear to be giving him the benefit of the doubt.

Faculty and staff can expect to hear more details about Caret's plans at today's ceremony. It is expected to be far less elaborate than the one for Perkins - a 2 1/2 -hour affair that included a lengthy procession of flags from around the world and Perkins' donning of a $25,000 gold medallion made for the occasion.

Today, there will be no flag procession and no lavish party at a downtown hotel. But Caret will wear the medallion. After all, he said, Towson owns it. "We can either sell it at a big loss on eBay or use it," he said.

"There's not going to be anything outrageous," Caret said. "This university is 135 years old, and there were two years of bumps. Hopefully, you get over the bumps and move on."

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