Great expectations

Our view: Retiring University of Md. president C.D. Mote took the state's flagship school from middling status to world-class contender

he leaves big shoes to fill

February 17, 2010

For an unassuming engineering professor, C.D. "Dan" Mote Jr. took on the presidency of the University of Maryland, College Park in 1998 with a bold agenda: to bring Maryland's flagship university into the same class as the nation's crown jewel state schools, like the University of Virginia and the University of California. A dozen years later, as Mr. Mote announces his plans to step down in August, that no longer seems so far-fetched.

Mr. Mote's singular accomplishment as leader of the state's largest public university campus was to establish what he called "an expectation of excellence" - the idea that College Park could be a first-choice school for the state's most talented students and take its place among the top tier of public research institutions. Though UM had already begun an ambitious upgrade of its programs when Mr. Mote arrived there, he expanded on those plans and brought them to fruition. By the time he announced his retirement this week, his great expectations for the school were widely shared.

Mr. Mote's tenure saw the university complete the two largest fundraising campaigns in its history, more than double its research funding to $518 million last year and upgrade its physical plant with a slew of new buildings, including the Comcast Center, a 130-acre research park, a performing arts center, new bioscience and engineering buildings and several large academic halls.

The academic improvements he introduced were just as impressive. Even as the school became more selective in its admissions - attracting students with higher test scores and grade-point averages a full half-point higher than they were when Mr. Mote arrived - the number of freshman applications doubled. In less than a generation, the school rose from 30th to 18th in the U.S. News & World Report ranking of public research institutions. If College Park doesn't yet hold the same place in popular esteem as the University of Virginia or Berkeley, it may only be a matter of time.

Mr. Mote's departure as UM's president - he will take a leave of absence for a year, then return to teach engineering at the school - leaves a legacy that will hard to match. But at least the University System of Maryland will have the advantage of looking for new leadership at a time when the school clearly is on an upward trajectory, not in the throes of a crisis. As it forms its search committee, the system could do worse than to look for another Dan Mote, who gave UM a steady, balanced presence at the helm.

Mr. Mote's successor will no doubt face challenges of his or her own - not the least of which are potentially painful state budget cuts and an end to the system's four-year freeze on tuition increases. But at least UM won't have to look for a revolutionary leader of the kind brought in to shake up an institution mired in complacency and stagnation. It will be quite enough to find someone who will energetically continue to advance the thoroughgoing transformations that Mr. Mote has quietly nurtured for more than a decade.

Readers respond
My kids went to the University of Maryland, College Park when Dan Mote was rather new on campus. In fact, when my daughter graduated, at the ceremonies, I remember thinking about the man, "What a stodgy, boring guy!"

Stodgy he may be, but a pragmatist he surely is. Dan Mote is not a run of the mill showy person who talks a lot and delivers little. He has brought Maryland's flagship university down a long road of success and he leaves it better than he found it. His legendary fundraising ability is hard to imitate. He knows how to rope the alumni in on behalf of their alma mater. For this we owe him our gratitude. We should all wish him great success in his future endeavors.

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