Ire grows after Towson president cuts teams

Loeschke faces biggest test of her 18-month tenure

  • Shown is Towson's baseball manager Mike Gottlieb during an inter-squad scrimmage at their home field. Towson's baseball program was recently eliminated.
Shown is Towson's baseball manager Mike Gottlieb during… (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore…)
March 24, 2013|By Carrie Wells and Scott Calvert, The Baltimore Sun

Towson University baseball coach Mike Gottlieb got the call March 8 at 9:07 a.m. — a time he has committed to memory.

We need you to meet with us at 9:45 a.m., athletic director Mike Waddell told him. Call your players and tell them to come, too, at 10.

It wasn't good news, Waddell said.

Disgusted, Gottlieb called no one. But soon team members, some in class and others still at home, saw messages flash on their cellphones from an unknown number. It said they'd be excused from class if they showed up soon for a meeting at the Johnny Unitas Stadium Field House on campus.

What happened next has resonated far beyond Towson's campus. With several university police officers nearby, President Maravene S. Loeschke announced that the baseball and men's soccer teams would be eliminated, igniting fierce criticism from prominent alumni who decried the move and what they call Loeschke's poor handling of it.

The teams' disbanding made national news and has blown up into the biggest challenge of Loeschke's 18-month tenure as Towson's leader. This week the controversy reached Annapolis, where Gov. Martin O'Malley and Comptroller Peter Franchot rebuked her decision and demanded that she appear before them in two weeks to explain her actions.

The sudden involvement of two of the state's top elected officials has renewed hope for some that Loeschke might yet change her mind. But in an interview Thursday, she said she has no plan to reinstate either team, a decision that has garnered some support on campus.

"I'm not happy about any of this; it's not something that anybody wants to have to do," said Loeschke, who said she based her decision on financial reality and the need to ensure gender parity. But, she added, "I'm very comfortable that the right decision was made and that it was made as humanely as it could have been."

Loeschke said her decision to have police officers on hand was routine for such announcements, which may spark an emotional response. "Given these times, it's the safest thing to do for everyone's protection," she said. "It didn't have to do with my fear of anyone attacking me."

The presence of multiple police officers was a particular source of irritation for Franchot, who said it sent an unfair message that the players were "thugs."

Loeschke's boss, University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. Kirwan, declined to comment on her handling of the announcement but said he supports her decision.

"It's a sad day whenever you eliminate a sports team," Kirwan said. But he said he believes that Loeschke and her advisers tried their best to save the teams: "I think they have come to the only conclusion they can reach and meet the federal and fiscal requirements they have."

Even after this cut, Kirwan noted, Towson will still have 19 intercollegiate athletic programs, tied with the University of Maryland, College Park and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County for most in the state.

State-level attention

Last Wednesday, O'Malley and Franchot — two members of the three-member state Board of Public Works — delayed a pre-construction contract the university needs to make sure a planned building at its new Harford County campus is finished on time. First, the two elected officials said, they want Loeschke to answer questions at the board's next meeting April 3.

Kirwan said Loeschke hopes to sit down with O'Malley and Franchot in the next week to discuss the issue, and he plans to attend the meeting.

Jim Salt, the university system's procurement director, said construction of the building began last month and remains on track to open in the fall of 2014. Sources in Annapolis say the contract is expected to be approved.

Kirwan said he doesn't see "any connection" between Loeschke's decision and an academic building that's "badly needed" in Harford County, adding that he hopes the contract is approved April 3.

Mike Gill, a Towson alumnus and former chairman of the university's Board of Visitors, called the Board of Public Works vote "really extraordinary" and said it "caught the local world by surprise."

"Every now and then, there is a headline that shows up in the afternoon that has you pause to read it again and make sure you read it correctly," he said.

Gill hopes that the mounting pressure will cause Loeschke to reinstate the teams. "I really believe in the next couple of weeks she'll take a deep breath, review everything and step forward to a press conference … and announce we're reversing course," he said.

"I'd like to hope that's exactly what will happen long before she gets in front of the governor."

Gill said he did not lobby either O'Malley or Franchot and was unaware of any attempts to do so: "This is one time I can say, without crossing my fingers behind my back, I'm not in the middle of it."

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