Hoke Smith: Will we ever see his like again?

April 04, 2004|By C. Fraser Smith

THEY FIGHT so hard because the stakes are so low.

It's an old saw, meant to be wry commentary on the ferocity of campus politics.

When various forces struggled years ago over which university should control the fabled Shock Trauma system in Maryland, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, an above-average politician, marveled at the fracas he saw.

They were fighting over the bodies, he said.

At another level, though, the best of the academics - men and women like Towson University president emeritus Hoke L. Smith - fight because they know the stakes truly are high.

Mr. Smith, who died March 27, fought for more resources because he wanted a university that could accomplish the academy's classic mission. His own view of that mission was expansive, pragmatic and patriotic.

Here's a little of what's at stake:

The creative capacity of the nation. Universities develop thinkers who will be called upon for monumental chores: to reinvent the national economy in an era of globalism; to devise new methods of conflict resolution; to renew essential institutions with strength and flexibility.

The judgment of national leaders. Universities are forums for debating the big questions: What might be the consequences of pre-emptive war? How can a nation protect itself from an invisible terrorist front without sacrificing the ideals of democracy and an open society?

The quality of public discourse. Curious, unfettered inquiry can produce capable, involved citizens with insights beyond small-minded ideological squabbles.

The integrity of CEOs. Properly educated men and women will shun mindless, wealth-building arrogance. They will try to make life less mean, brutish and short.

But universities have been drawn ever more deeply into the hurly-burly of the marketplace, dislodged from their role as a contemplative haven for thought and research. Society should insist on a return to the model exemplified by Mr. Smith, whose scholarship and fatherly smile conveyed a sense of confidence and security.

You won't see that sort of president again, one of his admirers said Wednesday, after a memorial service. The university president of today, he said, is a "rough-hewn fund raiser" forced to endure - and maybe even to like - hours of high-level panhandling with donors.

Hoke Smith's story makes the professor's point.

He spent 22 years trying to winkle adequate budgets from a succession of Maryland governors, men who admired him but who seldom granted his requests. In the end, Towson's president decided he had to take a more public, more dramatic stand. He walked into an important blue-ribbon commission and hurled truth against the wall. His presentation was regarded as treachery, heresy, an unforgivable departure from bureaucratic correctness. He was forced out.

At the memorial service, friends and associates recalled his penchant for bromides: "No good deed goes unpunished" might have been included. In its place: "But he had a good run, did his best. He left with his head up."

He had wit and self-deprecating humor to sustain him. A latecomer to organized religion and perhaps a reluctant one, he engaged his minister in a series of conversations. He went out, as it were, and found a seminar on spirituality. At one point, his disease gathering momentum, he told the pastor he had made a commitment, a profession of faith. Surely the minister was pleased. Yes, Hoke said, he had bought a new car. The minister knew him well by then and smiled. In a short time, Mr. Smith joined her church and, at the age of 70-plus, asked to be baptized.

He remained an active thinker on the important issues of his time. He was a valued member of the state's policy-making board on higher education. He taught a course in international politics. He was still learning, still grappling with the big questions. At the end of the service last week - at his request, apparently - there was a reminder of the stakes as he saw them. The mourners stood to sing "America the Beautiful."

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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