Towson University has room to grow and big ambitions

Originally published in The Baltimore Sun

By Larry Williams
Ideas Editor

December 25, 2005

In a week when the Johns Hopkins University announced a 7.2 percent tuition increase—boosting the basic cost of attending one of the nation's finest educational institutions to $33,900— Robert L. Caret sits in a comfortable chair in his sunny office overlooking the campus of Towson University, a few miles to the north, and smiles.

Caret is the president of Towson, and powerful social and economic trends appear to be working in his favor. Towson's tuition is $7,096 for in-state students—a still-affordable number for many middle-class families.

Maryland urgently needs teachers and health care professionals, two fields where Towson is well equipped to teach. The school also has strong programs in business, computer information systems and communications.

Towson's leafy 328-acre suburban campus has lots of room for growth, and the school, the second largest in the University System of Maryland, has a state mandate to add 8,000 students to enrollment of 18,000—a 44 percent increase—between now and 2015.

All of this sets the stage for Towson to grow into an institution that Caret hopes will soon be viewed with the same recognition and admiration as important junior partners in state systems elsewhere—schools like Michigan State or North Carolina State.

But Caret faces major challenges on the path from here to there.

For one thing, Towson lacks significant graduate programs, an important locus of achievement and funding. For another, the campus is still very much a work in progress - with hundreds of millions worth of new buildings and landscaping improvements needed to make it come alive as an attractive environment for learning and living.

To that end, Towson has put together an ambitious vision plan intended to fundamentally reshape the school's physical facilities. It proposes adding:

  • 2.3 million square feet of facility space for academics, administration and athletics;
  • 2,000 on-campus beds;
  • 1,500 parking spaces;
  • a new main entrance to reorient the school away from its narrow frontage on busy York Road and toward Towsontown Boulevard at University Avenue
  • 20 acres of additional green space on the hilly campus site.

"Take a good look now, because in a few years you won't be able to recognize this place," said Jack E. Nye II, Towson's director of planning, on a recent tour of the campus.

Nye said the school hopes to move vehicles away from the campus center; to more logically organize the school into zones that focus on academics, student services, housing and athletics; and to create a more appealing environment with new vistas and pleasing walkways.

The University System of Maryland hopes to provide Towson with more than $120 million in aid over the next five years for new classrooms and other academic facilities to make a start on the new campus. The school also will be vying for a share of a state bonding program that will allow it to build several dorm buildings in a residential village along Towsontown Boulevard just west of the main campus.

Caret isn't expecting to rely on state-guaranteed bonds or financial aid to expand the school.

He's working on a new capital fundraising campaign that he said will double the goal of the previous effort, and he's networking with a growing body of influential alumni. He has also established a business enterprise division at the school to tap Towson's intellectual resources to win grants and contract work from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the National Institutes of Health and other entities looking for research help.

Caret is pleased that the school has won the right to offer a new MBA degree in partnership with the University of Baltimore. Towson, which boasts a large undergraduate business school, will aunch its first graduate-level business classes next fall.

The president hopes to gradually offer more graduate-level programs as the school grows.

He said that his efforts to grow the school have been helped by good relations with the state system regents and with political leaders in Annapolis.

Although Towson enjoys the advantage of a relatively affordable tuition, Caret recognizes that financial pressures likely to come with prospective cuts in federal scholarship and student loan aid, as well as increases in operating expenses, will continue to produce economic challenges.

Caret also believes it is vital to continue to buttress the school's academic reputation. This fall, the midlevel SAT scores of incoming students ranged from 1020 to 1170 and the average high school grade point average was 3.47.

For many at Towson, focusing on the school's ambitious growth plans is a happy change from the controversies that surrounded the departure of Mark L. Perkins, Caret's predecessor.

Perkins resigned in April 2002 after just nine months as president. He left under pressure from the regents after articles in The Sun and a subsequent state audit reported that Towson had pent nearly $1 million to renovate its new $850,000 presidential mansion in Baltimore's Guilford neighborhood.

Perkins also sparked controversy when he spent $25,000 on an elaborate gold medal symbolizing the president's office.

Last week Caret joked that he had offered at his first meeting with the university faculty to sell the medal on eBay.

Caret, a native of Maine, was at Towson for 21 years, arriving as a chemistry professor and serving as provost for seven years before leaving to serve as president of San Jose State University in 1995. During his time as provost, faculty and administrators say, he acquired a reputation as a leader with a strong presence who often acted as the public face of the university in place of the reserved President Hoke L. Smith.

At 30,000-student San Jose State, Caret won state support for the $244 million first phase of a new campus housing village and a $177 million city-university library. He also worked to boost the university's football program at a time when low attendance was threatening its elimination from Division I, under National Collegiate Athletic Association rules.

The regents of the University System of Maryland lured Caret back to Towson in 2003 after lengthy negotiations.

Caret's wife, Elizabeth Zoltan, is serving as provost of Frederick Community College.


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