Gamble on Ungar benefits Goucher

Ex-NPR host finds home in academia as college president

Sun profile

November 23, 2007|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,Sun reporter

After a career journalist without a Ph.D. was appointed president of Goucher College in 2001, Sanford J. Ungar's peers in the ivory tower were calculating the former National Public Radio host's chances of survival.

"When they chose him, I thought people like that last either three months or a long time," said Dr. William R. Brody, president of the Johns Hopkins University. "Managing an academic institution takes a certain amount of patience. ... And if faculty don't view you as a serious academic, it makes your leadership more difficult."

Six years later, the gamble on the unconventional president with the trademark radio voice and $10 fedora appears to have paid off. "I think he's survived and thrived on both counts, which is remarkable," Brody said.

Goucher's board of trustees clearly agrees. This week, the school announced that Ungar's tenure has been extended through June 2013. In fiscal year 2006, he was the third-highest-paid Maryland private college president, taking home about $330,000, though officials declined to detail his new compensation package. Applications are up 70 percent since Ungar took office and a $48 million library and student center are under construction. The Towson school's decision in 2005 to become the country's first liberal arts campus to require all students to study abroad has raised the national profile of the 122-year-old former women's college.

"He has produced exactly what we had hoped," said John M. Bond Jr., the trustees' chairman. "With regard to internationalization, increased growth in the endowment, improvement of the physical plant, you name it, Sandy has led the way."

Ungar, 62, also gets high marks from students and professors, though his urgency in making major changes has ruffled some faculty feathers.

"I love what I'm doing," Ungar said this week. But "there were some nibbles coming around" from larger campuses searching for new leadership, "and I wanted to know whether to pay attention to them." There also were inquiries from would-be presidential administrations wondering whether the Democrat would consider a political appointment.

"I decided probably not," he said.

A Wilkes-Barre, Pa., native and son of Central European immigrants, Ungar wrote for the Harvard Crimson student newspaper while an undergraduate in Cambridge, Mass. He spent about a decade as both a continent-hopping correspondent and Washington journalist, and has written or edited six books. But it was a stint in the early 1980s as host of NPR's All Things Considered newsmagazine with which many people still associate Ungar.

"My sister still has friends who swear they listen to me on the way home," he said. "And I left 24 years ago."

From 1986 to 1999, Ungar was dean of American University's School of Communication and was then tapped by President Bill Clinton to head up the 1,150-employee Voice of America, the government's foreign broadcasting operation.

When George W. Bush took office in 2001, Ungar set his sights on a college president position. Though he had never visited Goucher before interviewing there, he was taken by the prospect of putting his stamp on a picturesque campus still emerging from a painful transition to coeducation in the mid-1980s.

The proximity to Washington, where his wife is a doctor, made the job feasible.

He has become an avuncular figure on the rolling campus, greeting students by name as he strides down "Van Meter Highway" beneath a felt hat picked up for a song at a Pennsylvania hardware store and sometimes walking his golden retriever, Tekka. While recently breakfasting on a bacon-and-egg sandwich in the cafeteria, a student came up to introduce Ungar to a friend she made while studying abroad in Thailand.

"I wouldn't have met her without Goucher," the student cooed, hugging her new friend while Ungar beamed.

Moments later, he laughingly insisted the pretty scene was not staged for a reporter's benefit.

In recent years, the journalist and historian has made a study of the college presidency, urging his colleagues to use their offices to shape public discourse from outside the political fray.

Ungar's tenure so far has coincided with a period of contentious U.S. foreign policy grounded in the forceful pursuit of democratization abroad - and he has argued from his own "bully pulpit" that bullying foreigners to embrace American ideals is misguided.

It is a theme that complements Goucher's study abroad mandate, which Ungar envisions as sending young ambassadors overseas as listeners and students, rather than as missionaries.

Though the international initiative engendered plenty of good press for the little-known college, it has also created tensions with the faculty. The study-abroad plan was approved in 2002 by the board of trustees but not until 2005 by the faculty, many of whom worried that Ungar was being hasty.

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