After 10 years, president sees his school as transformed

Washington College went from `dismal' to Tier 2

May 16, 2004|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

CHESTERTOWN - In the precise mind of a physicist like John S. Toll, it all has a certain symmetry, this full-circle journey he intends to conclude where it began - working on elementary particle theory in a building in College Park that now bears his name.

Near the end of a 60-year career that has included pioneering research in nuclear fusion, the presidency of two large state universities and the chancellor's job at the University of Maryland system, Toll is not about to slip quietly into retirement, even at age 80.

In fact, the president of Washington College, who in June announced his intention to step down, isn't going anywhere just yet.

First there's the matter of presiding over his 10th commencement today. Tomorrow, Toll begins what he calls a "president emeritus" job that others describe as a 13-month consulting gig to ensure that this little Eastern Shore college builds on his legacy - a decade-long tenure that has been the most productive in the school's 222-year history.

"By all accounts, John gets the credit for saving the college," says Robert Mooney, who is head of its prestigious undergraduate writing program. "That has generated enormous respect, gratitude and loyalty from the faculty. We're at a pivotal moment now, largely because of him."

Many around this leafy enclave will miss the sheer delight Toll seems to take in wandering the campus and chatting with students. He enjoys eating in the cafeteria and showing up at such varied campus events as a Counting Crows concert and the annual Washington's Birthday Ball - albeit with ears stuffed with cotton.

"I guess we all take for granted that he is so involved in students' lives," says Brenna Schneider, 20, a junior who wants to parlay an international studies degree into a slot in the Peace Corps. "He always listens. He's grandfatherly, I guess, but he can relate to just about any student because he has such wide interests and experiences."

Toll, who deflects such praise, says he arrived at this career stop at the request of his longtime friend and Annapolis ally, the late state Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein. It was supposed to be a temporary billet until he could return to the University of Maryland physics department.

The college that got its start with a donation from namesake George Washington was in a fiscal crisis, facing a growing deficit. With enrollment stuck around 850, Toll cut the budget as much as possible without eliminating programs.

Then Toll outlined a bold plan to the board to fill underused classrooms. He would offer $10,000 scholarships to any high school senior who was a member of the National Honor Society or the Cum Laude Society - $40,000 for recipients who kept their grades up until graduation.

Ten years later, enrollment has climbed to 1,400, and more than half the students qualify for aid under the Washington Scholars program.

"What Johnny did was a kind of a Field of Dreams idea: Make the college better, and they will come," says George J. Spilich, a psychology professor and 25-year faculty member. "We've gone from dismal academic rankings to a Tier 2 school, a Tier 2 school with a bullet."

Toll says he agreed to serve what was supposed to be a four-month term in Chestertown mostly out of a sense of gratitude to Goldstein, a Washington College alumnus who had always been a friendly face at the State House when Toll led the state's university system.

Attracting students

"The scholars program was a dramatic offer, worth about half what total tuition was then," Toll says. "It was also a challenge to the board to raise more money. It broadened our appeal. To me, it seemed most important to get students who could enhance the college. That's still our No. 1 priority - getting good students."

Beyond academic standing, Toll initiated what turned out to be a $103 million fund-raising campaign that quadrupled the college's endowment, from $26 million to more than $100 million.

Bricks and mortar will last long after Toll has taken his leave. Eleven new residence halls and significant renovations to older buildings have more than doubled the value of the school's physical plant.

Right now, Toll and the board are looking for donors to help pay for a $23 million science and research center. Known for having little shame in squeezing potential patrons, Toll says he would gladly name a campus street for any $1 million contributor who can help pay for a new entrance at the college's southern border.

"I've had an enormously good time here, and I'm staying on to be sure we don't take a break and lose momentum," Toll says. "We're not at the top of the heap yet with places like Amherst, Williams or Swarthmore, but we can document that we've made more progress than any college in the last 10 years."

Distinguished career

Toll made a mark in academia long before he came here. After earning degrees from Princeton and Yale, he worked with physicist Edward Teller doing research on Project Matterhorn, creating fusion-powered weapons.

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