State of the College Address

Presented by Dean David A. Vanko at the Fisher College Fall Forum on December 8, 2017

Dean David A. Vanko

I’m very pleased to have this opportunity to guide us through a reflection on the State of the Fisher College.  We’ll first spend a few moments reviewing some highlights from the past year (always recognizing of course that this list can’t be considered comprehensive and I’m sure to miss something – apologies in advance!).  Next, we’ll turn our attention to some challenges and how we hope to handle them.  Finally, we’ll look ahead to the coming years, keeping a sharp focus on our college’s strategic goals as well as President Schatzel’s Presidential Priorities. 


So first, some highlights.  Our faculty and staff were no strangers to the limelight this year!  For example,

  • Jonathan Lazar, from Computer and Information Sciences, won a 2017 Regents’ Faculty Award for Excellence in Research.
  • Mary Sajini Devadas, from Chemistry, was selected as the twelfth Jess & Mildred Fisher Endowed Professor in the Biological and Physical Sciences.
  • Chris Cornwell, from Mathematics, was selected as the third Jess & Mildred Fisher Endowed Professor in the Mathematical and Computing Sciences.
  • Sarah Haines, from Biological Sciences, was appointed to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's National Environmental Education Advisory Council.
  • Ronald Hermann, from Physics, Astronomy & Geosciences, was selected by the Association for Science Teacher Education as the 2017 Outstanding Science Teacher Educator of the Year (for those with less than ten years of service).
  • And Dr. Sharlene Roberson, our FCSM STEM Program Director who runs the TOPS program and the STEM Residential Learning Community, won the 2017 Towson University Diversity and Inclusion Award for the staff category.

Our students and alumni are also continuing to earn recognition.  For example:

  • Physics graduate Paul Lee was named a 2017 Local Teacher of the Year by the national PhysTEC (Physics Teacher Education Consortium) organization. Paul is now a high school physics teacher in Howard County.
  • Geology graduate Francis M. McCubbin is the astromaterials curator at the NASA Johnson Space Center, responsible for the management of all of our lunar samples, numerous Antarctic meteorites, and cosmic dust samples. Francis received the F.W. Clarke Award from the Geochemical Society at their annual meeting this year in Paris, which recognizes an early-career scientist for a single outstanding contribution to geochemistry or cosmochemistry.
  • The TU Society of Physics Students (SPS) was recognized by the SPS National Office as a 2017 Outstanding SPS Chapter. Only 72 of 813 (<10%) SPS chapters received this recognition. 
  • TU computer science students finished third (which placed them in the top 10%) in the Mid-Atlantic Collegiate Cyber-Defense competition back in April.

And what about program recognition?  There’s good news on that front as well:

  • Both the undergraduate forensic chemistry and the graduate forensic science programs were reaccredited by FEPAC for five years.
  • Computer Science had a successful ABET reaccreditation visit, too. And new this year, ABET invited us to pilot a new Cybersecurity accreditation– we were one of four institutions invited to do so, and indications are that we will receive one of the first four Cybersecurity accreditations in the country.
  • The Molecular Biology, Biochemistry and Bioinformatics (MB3) degree program was accredited by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB). MB3 graduates can now say that they’ve graduated from an accredited program, and they are now eligible to take an optional national exam so that their individual degree can be one certified by ASBMB.
  • Two new post-baccalaureate certificates in the MS in Applied Information Technology program have been approved – one in Health Information Technology and the other in Computer Forensics.
  • A new dual degree program in Actuarial Science and Risk Management with Jiangxi University of Finance and Economics in China is about to be approved later this month by the Maryland Higher Education Commission (MHEC).
  • Finally, our research and education program in collaboration with the town of Port Deposit, Maryland, moved forward this spring with a dedication ceremony for the renovated Old Gas House on the Port Deposit waterfront, now serving as the Tome Visitor Center and Towson University Research and Education Center for the Northern Map Turtle.

Research is alive and well in the Fisher College, with much of it being published and much of it supported by extramural funding.  Some of the largest research grants this year have included:

  • The $1M Howard Hughes Medical Institute “Inclusive Excellence” grant to Laura Gough, Matthew Hemm, and several others.
  • A $1.2M USDoD grant focused on ecological risk, to Chris Salice.
  • A $500,000 NSF CAREER award – our 5th NSF CAREER award in the college, to John Sivey.
  • A $290,000 NSF grant to study perovskite materials, led by lecturer Gary Pennington and colleagues in PAGs.
  • The $4M NSF Scholarship for Service program led by Shiva Azadegan and colleagues in CIS.
  • The $200,000 BRIDGES to the Doctorate program funded by NIH and led by Elana Ehrlich and Michelle Snyder.
  • A $350,000 DARPA grant to explore Metamaterial Superconductors, conducted by Vera Smolyaninova.
  • A $300,000 NSA grant to develop Cybersecurity Labs and a Research Knowledgebase, led by Sidd Kaza.
  • And a $127,000 Army Research Lab grant for Wei Yu and Chao Lu, probably for something top-secret.

Let me be clear, though, that it’s not just the big grants that we celebrate.  I, for one, had many smaller grants in my career, and each of those small grant proposals required the same meticulous thinking and writing as the large proposals.  In FY17, 65 of you were involved as PIs or co-PIs, requesting a total of $22M of extramural support.  We continue to seek outside funding to support the research and curricular activities that we love, because at the same time we know that the state’s funding isn’t enough.  I applaud all of you who are taking up this challenge.

A final highlight I’d like to point out deals with development – fund raising for the college.  I’ve had the pleasure to work quite closely with our development team in the Division of University Advancement.  This includes, among others, Sarah Metzger, our Major Gift Officer; Geannine Callaghan, who handles Foundations; and Ron Brown, who handles Corporations.  Together with many of you and many of our alumni, we’ve been quite successful in offering people with resources the opportunity to help us financially.  Some examples this year have been:

  • Generous support from the Kahlert Foundation for Towson UTeach and for the new science complex, and
  • Support for the science building from Dr. Michele Cooper, M.D. and others. The total raised so far for the science complex is $1.54M, and four gifts so far will result in named spaces.
  • And a very generous gift in support of student success in Physics from Professor Emeritus Eddie Loh – thank you, Eddie!

Total philanthropic giving to the Fisher College in FY17 was $938,000, and total giving so far this fiscal year is $1.59M.  I’m very optimistic that our development efforts will continue to grow and will provide money not only for the science building, but also for scholarships and for general programming that can benefit all of our departments.


This last year has not been without its challenges.  Perhaps the biggest continuing one is dealing with enrollment growth in virtually all of our programs.  We have added numerous full-time faculty – 24 to be exact – over the past ten years, to help with this growth.  All of these positions have been lecturers, and we very much appreciate and depend on our lecturers.  Nevertheless, we need to grow in a balanced way, and feel it is time to add tenure-track faculty.  This year we’ve been authorized to add two new positions, and we will be asking for more in FY19.

A related challenge is finding seats for new students, particularly when their arrival wasn’t predicted well in advance.  We suffer from having some very popular choices for students, such as computer science, pre-med, and forensic chemistry.  We hate the idea of turning people away especially because we know we hold the key for many of these students to transform their lives.  But we worry that stretching faculty resources thin just to provide more seats can compromise academic quality.  No one wants to accept that compromise.  The solution, of course, remains an increase to our faculty resources.

Our programs are also greatly in need of new staff resources.  In the past, when Mark Scarinzi used to explain to me how his budget management workload kept increasing, I used to joke that we provided him with a newer, faster computer every three years.  That got old, and I now have to admit that our staff workloads have grown in some cases to unbearable levels.  How can you keep adding sections of a lab course over ten years and not provide any additional staff help to make those sections run?  Our staffing situation is exacerbated by actual reductions in staff positions that occurred during the budget cut years.  We will keep forwarding new staff positions in our annual budget request, and will continue to lobby for relief, especially because of the the new, larger science complex, and ever-increasing enrollments in the 7800 building.

None of this is news to you – I’m highlighting these concerns simply to communicate that I hear you, and I hear your department chairs, and I know that, despite all the good things I can list about our college, there are these continuing stressors that deserve my constant attention.


To help frame our near future, I’d like to go through President Schatzel’s “Presidential Priorities” and comment on how the Fisher College may participate and help.  And keep in mind the college’s top priorities, worked out with the advice of the College Council and the Chairs’ Council, are (1) Student Success, including assessment; (2) Research Excellence; and (3) Diversity and Inclusion. 

The first Presidential Priority is “TU Matters to Maryland.”  We can support this priority by optimizing our students’ success, and by continuing to conduct research, particularly, but not exclusively, applied research that matters to our community.  Furthermore, our diversity and inclusion goals have the potential to “matter to Maryland,” particularly when our STEM graduates model the benefits of increased equity and opportunity for all as they move on to productive lives and careers.

Priority #2 is BTU: Partnerships at work.  Our educational and, particularly, our outreach efforts like Project ASTRO and the TU Center for STEM Excellence/SciTech, are exemplary BTU partnerships that have potential to heal and enrich Baltimore.

The Lifelong Career Center, Priority #3, includes a model to create a Career Community in each college.  The Fisher College will be the first to pilot this initiative next year, with two Career Center staff members assigned specifically to us to help develop and build a strong student and alumni career program.

Priority #4 is a Diverse and Inclusive Campus.  The Fisher College is the most diverse on campus.  Currently, thirty-four percent of our undergraduates are Black/African-American or Hispanic/Latino.  More than half of our faculty in Chemistry are female.  International students come from around the world to major in our STEM fields.  We are intentional about maintaining a welcoming and, yes, nurturing academic environment for people from all walks of life.

Other Presidential Priorities are a Culture of Philanthropy – Check! I’ve already spoken about accelerating our fund raising efforts;

A World Class Faculty Development Center – yes, we can certainly support that!;

Strategic Plan Alignment – absolutely, we think we are well aligned with the campus strategy, and we will continue to monitor that;

And the TIGER Way – transfer, international, and graduate enrollment resources – we do all that we can to accommodate the smooth integration of all these groups.

I’m looking ahead to the next few years of enhanced faculty and staff resources; to a fully-funded and fully-functioning New Science Complex; to strong continuing and new academic programs; and to enhanced grant support and philanthropic fund-raising.  This is all possible if the Fisher College’s growth and development is aided by strong Presidential leadership, strong academic leadership from the Provost’s Office, and highly engaged shared governance.  I think we have been and are now on a very good trajectory, and I hope you do, too.  Thank you for all that you do to make the Fisher College great!

FCSM Distinguished Service Award for Howard Kaplon

Before I turn the program over to Associate Dean Vonnie Shield, I would like to make a special presentation.  Every now and then, we have used the opportunity of the FCSM Fall Forum to say a special thanks to one of our colleagues who is especially deserving of recognition.  I’m very pleased to announce that this year, a group of no less than 21 faculty and staff members wrote to me stating that it is high time that we recognized Howard Kaplon for his extraordinary record of service to Towson University, and that we award him the FCSM Distinguished Service Award.  You all know Howard, who has been here at Towson University for more than 50 years.  Let me read some of the nomination letter:

“This letter serves to provide evidence of Howard’s outstanding nature and his long, dedicated, distinguished service to Towson University and the Fisher College. Although Howard is not the type of person that seeks recognition, we are hoping that this award will signify that we in the TU community notice and appreciate all of his efforts.

“When Howard joined TU in 1966, he was one of the members of the Mathematics Department with the most advanced mathematical knowledge. In his early years, he taught courses across the entire spectrum of classes, and he even supervised student-teachers. As the department’s class offerings grew both deeper and wider, Howard became part of the statistics group. He developed and has single-handedly kept up-to-date a set of laboratory exercises used in all the basic stat courses offered by the Mathematics Department; his lab manual is now in its 20th edition and is used by almost 30 sections per semester. Moreover, Howard was part of the group of faculty who contributed to the early success of Towson’s Applied Mathematics Laboratory (AML), established in the early 1980’s as a venue to involve mathematics majors in real applied research.

“Howard has served the Mathematics Department in numerous roles, as Assistant Chair, webmaster, computer lab supervisor, and technology coordinator. He has also served the Fisher College as member of the FCSM College Council, Acting Associate Dean, and most recently as a special assistant to the Dean. What is remarkable about Howard is his institutional memory, his knowledge of TU policies and regulations, and his tireless dedication to the university.

“What truly stands out about Howard, however, is the attention he pays to every little detail that he touches. Whether it is through the meticulous maintenance of his Minitab lab manual, or the seamless updates to the FCSM website, or the tireless pursuit of budget savings for the institution, his efforts to improve this university never cease. He is beyond selfless in his assistance to colleagues. We are amazed at how he selflessly volunteers his time to mentor us to ensure that we are successful in attaining our own professional aspirations.

“Howard Kaplon is an inspiration to both TU faculty and students through his words and actions, and often provides others with encouragement.  We believe that he truly embodies the essence of what service at TU is all about. Thus, it is truly an honor, and our pleasure to write this letter on his behalf. This is the least that we could do for someone who has given so much to us and to this institution.” 

What else can I say other than to agree wholeheartedly with what these colleagues have written?  Howard Kaplon is a treasure and we want him to know how very much we appreciate all that he has done and continues to do for the Fisher College and Towson University.  Howard, we have a certificate for you if you would please come forward.