`Mr. Towson University' enriched the institution

Ex-president, educator led campus for 22 years

Hoke L. Smith : 1931-2004

March 28, 2004|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Hoke L. Smith, the former president of Towson University whose name for many was synonymous with the institution he led for more than two decades, died yesterday of liver cancer at his home at Highfield House in Baltimore. He was 72.

During Dr. Smith's 22-year tenure, Towson dropped the word "State" from its name at his urging and saw its enrollment grow to more than 16,000 students.

Dr. Smith drew praise from educators and politicians for his ardent support of the university, which also played a part in his being replaced in 2001, they said. The 10th president of the once-sleepy teachers' college, he continued to serve as its president emeritus.

His death was unexpected - even to family and friends, who knew he had been ill and under treatment in the last year for what began as prostate cancer but spread to his liver, lungs and bones.

Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer said he last talked to Dr. Smith Friday evening.

"He did a great job with Towson. He really loved his university," said Mr. Schaefer, who was mayor of Baltimore when he became friends with Dr. Smith about 25 years ago. "His whole life was tied up in the kids."

"They really made a mistake," Mr. Schaefer said of the decision by the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents to seek Dr. Smith's retirement. Dr. Smith was pressured into retirement by the board for, among other things, suggesting that Towson leave the state system because of inadequate funding and a lack of respect for Towson's mission.

"We're all going to miss him," said Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Princeton alumnus who became a supporter of academics and athletics at Towson. He named Dr. Smith to the Maryland Higher Education Commission in July. Dr. Smith was also a member of Ehrlich's transition team.

"I felt very badly about how his `retirement' was handled," Mr. Ehrlich said. Dr. Smith and Calvin W. Burnett, the former longtime president of Coppin State College and acting Secretary of Higher Education, "were always kind of fighting the rear-guard action together for their institutions," Mr. Ehrlich said.

Dr. Burnett called Dr. Smith a friend and sparring partner. "As college presidents, Hoke and I shared good times and bad, but the good far outweighed the bad because he made things better," he said in a statement.

Towson's next president, Mark L. Perkins, led the university for nine months before leaving under fire for spending $1.8 million on the president's mansion and other items.

Towson's current president, Robert L. Caret, returned in July to the campus where he had spent more than 20 years. Caret was appointed provost of Towson by Dr. Smith, whom he called his friend and mentor. He also noted Dr. Smith's national reputation as "the philosopher president," as well as his ability to win the trust and confidence of his faculty.

"Hoke used to talk to me about the human side of leadership, that these were real people with real lives and real ups and downs," he said.

Born in Galesburg, Ill., and raised in Illinois, Dr. Smith received his bachelor's degree in 1953 in political science at Knox College in Galesburg, and a master's degree in foreign affairs at the University of Virginia in 1954. A ROTC member, he rose to captain after serving on active Army duty at Fort Benning, Ga., from 1954 to 1956.

Dr. Smith earned his doctorate in political science in 1958 from Emory University in Atlanta, where he was selected as the outstanding student in the graduate school.

He began his career in education as an associate professor of political science at Hiram College in Hiram, Ohio, said a son, Kerry J. Smith of Seattle. Dr. Smith later moved to Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, where in 1970 he became vice president for academic administration.

He came to Towson State University as president in 1979. In 1997, it became Towson University, a change Smith sought to boost its image and to reflect the fact that it wasn't funded entirely by the state, but increasingly by tuition and fees.

Dr. Smith served as chairman of the boards of the American Council on Education from 1992 to 1993, and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities from 1986 to 1987.

Despite his focus on university administration, he maintained a keen interest in history and foreign affairs.

"He was one of the last of a breed, ... a university president who had a broad-based liberal education, and he loved education - he was not a businessman," said Dan Jones, a 38-year English professor and former interim provost.

He called Dr. Smith a pioneer in education who created a campus community at Towson.

"Working with third-class resources, he made a first-rate university," said Dr. Jones. "What Hoke did is create a whole atmosphere to take risks without penalty. If you wanted to create a new program ... you could try it." This included one of its earliest affirmative-action plans, a women's studies program.

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