A search for excellence at Towson

The university's new president needs to clearly articulate a balance between teaching and research

March 30, 2011|By Richard E. Vatz

President Robert Caret is leaving Towson University in April, and the University System of Maryland Board of Regents and Chancellor William E. Kirwan, with the advice of an ad hoc presidential search committee, will choose our new president.

Two of the key themes of the chancellor's new 10-year plan for the university system are "transforming the academic model to meet the needs of the 21st century" and "achieving and sustaining national eminence through the quality of USM's programs, people and facilities."

The choice of president for Towson is important to both goals because TU is becoming an even more significant university in Maryland and is growing toward an enrollment of over 25,000 undergraduate students, in spite of being the least well funded major university in the University System of Maryland. Chancellor Kirwan wants to significantly expand the number of Maryland residents with post-secondary degrees, and to achieve that, it will be critical for Towson to maintain its tradition of emphasizing high-quality teaching. Unlike most of its competitors, Towson University puts a major emphasis on its full-time faculty's teaching; the university rewards — or used to reward — its finest teachers for their superb skills in the classroom.

Here, then, are some issues — by no means an exhaustive list — by which candidates should be judged in the search for TU's next president:

•Towson's identity has been inconsistently communicated to the university community for years. Are we a research-intensive university or not? How important is teaching? How important is research? What is the mission of Towson University?

•What is the candidate's view of shared governance between administration and faculty? There is a growing concern at TU that the tremendous cooperation that once marked the relationship between the administration and faculty has dissipated. Do the candidates intend to reestablish administrative respect for faculty opinion?

•Advising for registration may seem like a small issue to those not on campus, but it is one of the most infuriating and consequential issues on campus — for some. Again, Towson faculty have been told that research and publication are important, but across campus there are departments that require up to 40 hours per term of advising students before they register for classes, an activity that faculty members, incidentally, simply do not do well.

The top faculty member in one department finds himself sitting every semester with 20-year-olds and tries to convince them that an 8 a.m. class "doesn't suck." Meanwhile, faculty in some departments do no advising. I can tell you that no professor can dedicate himself or herself to dozens of hours of registration advising and be a top-notch faculty member. Why not hire more full-time advisors? Yes, that might be a good idea, if we were funded to do so.

•A major related problem is that the university inveigles many top faculty to come to TU on the premise that they will find support for their scholarly activities. What those faculty don't know is that there is a workload issue on campus that results in many of TU's colleges giving new faculty a lower teaching load their first three years and then making it almost impossible to get that research-encouraging schedule again unless they publish an exceptional amount.

This workload policy, like advising, varies from college to college, and many faculty resent what they regard as the administration's profound lack of consistency. Many of our aspirational and performance peer universities are moving away from requiring faculty to advise for registration. Would the new candidates insist on a consistent, research-promoting workload policy and an end to mandatory registration advising?

I have taught at Towson University for almost 37 years. This university has done more for me than I could articulate even in a lengthy essay, but it is making mistakes, and the attitude of some in the administration is to ignore them. An astute, shrewd and strong new president could take up where our current excellent president left off, fix the problems, and help move Towson University to the top of research-intensive, comprehensive universities.

Maryland chose a great chancellor in Mr. Kirwan. Let's do the same for Towson University.

Richard E. Vatz is a faculty member in Mass Communication and Communication Studies at Towson University and is the longest-serving member of Towson's University Senate. His e-mail is rvatz@towson.edu. This article is adapted from a post on the blog Red Maryland.

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