Caret leaves legacy of growth at Towson

University hopes to continue its ascent despite president's departure for the UMass system

April 23, 2011|By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

When Robert L. Caret became president of Towson University in 2003, he knew that the institution where he had begun as a professor in 1974 was set for a boom in student population.

What he did not know was how Towson would look or how perceptions of it would differ after those thousands of students arrived. "What does Towson become when it grows up?" he says, remembering the question that loomed largest for him as a new leader.

Eight years later, with Caret departing to take over the University of Massachusetts system, he says the answer has taken form, even if it's not complete.

Caret has relentlessly sold his concept of Towson as a "workforce engine," the state's most robust provider of teachers, business people and health care workers.

The university is on track to pass College Park as the state's largest educator of undergraduate students. Towson has added about 4,000 students under Caret and increased its selectivity in the same span (the admission rate was 57 percent last fall, compared with 71 percent five years earlier). It has added almost 2,000 on-campus beds, with plans to build another two residence halls every two years for the foreseeable future.

Towson has quadrupled its research funding to $32 million, with a focus on applied efforts such as rehabilitating schools in Cherry Hill, using mathematical algorithms to fight crime and sending nursing students to work with Baltimore's homeless. At $7 million, fundraising last year was double what it had been five years earlier.

"In our case, bigger really is better," says Caret, whose last day at Towson was Tuesday.

State officials agree, saying Towson has gone from a diamond in the rough to just plain diamond.

"It's a different place than it was when he arrived," says Chancellor William E. Kirwan. "It's this metropolitan place that has an identity with a lot of people that it did not have before."

Caret likes to speak of putting Towson on par with North Carolina State, a nationally respected little brother to its state's flagship university.

"In some ways, we've become the N.C. State with our own flavor," Caret says. "We look like them, we taste like them, but we're not exactly like them."

What he means is that Towson has expanded without sacrificing an intimate undergraduate education that belies its size.

"States need a big institution that's devoted primarily to undergraduates," says Tim Sullivan, an economics professor who chairs Towson's university senate. "In order for College Park to work, Towson has to work, and Bob was very good at spreading the news on what we were doing here."

Caret's energy as a salesman of Towson's promise made him the right leader at the right time for a university that needed to grow, says David Nevins, a Towson alumnus and former member of the state's Board of Regents.

"We have come a long way in eight years, but at the same time, I'd say we have equally far to go," says Nevins, a member of the search committee seeking Caret's replacement. "What we're trying to build is the state's other great university. We are there in many ways but in many others, we're not."

Towson also has had to compete to a certain extent with the expanding and nationally recognized University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Signs of growth

Though future growth is expected to be more gradual, Towson is not done. It recently broke ground on a $68 million basketball arena and is awaiting clearance to erect a $40 million facility in Bel Air that would serve graduates of Harford Community College. The university also plans to lease large spaces in downtown Towson, including Towson Commons, to accommodate several rehabilitation centers and house students in the health care fields. Those moves could include efforts to attract restaurants and shops to serve the growing student population.

"That stretch of York Road has died to some degree, and we can bring it back," Caret says.

Amid all the big plans, Caret has suffered disappointments as well. The school's athletic programs, which he considers vital to marketing, fundraising and campus life, have floundered under the administrators and coaches he hired. Caret hoped a Harford County branch would be open by now, but construction has not even begun because the Maryland Higher Education Commission has been slow to grant permission. Caret also had to endure a brutal public fight with Morgan State University when he tried to start a master's program in business administration, which Morgan officials said would unfairly duplicate their business offerings.

Though MHEC ultimately allowed Towson to start a joint MBA program with the University of Baltimore, Caret says the standoff with Morgan spoke to his chief frustration with Maryland officials.

"It's crazy the way we were forced to waste time fighting over programs we all should have," he says. "We can't serve a population that's growing this quickly unless we can create programs."

Neighbors' concerns

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