Maravene Loeschke built a deep reservoir of good will in more than 30 years as a student, drama professor and administrator at Towson University.
After Monday's announcement that she will return to campus as Towson's new president, university leaders said Loeschke is the perfect person to maintain the university's upward trajectory as it battles for limited state resources. She has plenty of practice after five years as president of Pennsylvania's Mansfield University, where she added programs in the face of budget cuts.
"The biggest challenge will be getting the resources we need to maintain and build excellence," Loeschke said. "We faced massive cuts here in Pennsylvania, and we had to make very, very difficult decisions. It was certainly a training ground for how to be effective and efficient."
Colleagues said Loeschke, 64, was a magnetic teacher with powerful attachments to Towson and a leader who won't back down from difficult decisions. The announcement was a heartening one for Towson faculty members, who worry that the university will be treated as a second-class citizen when the state makes difficult budget decisions
"There is a general feeling at Towson that there are forces in the General Assembly who don't want us to challenge College Park," said Richard Vatz, a professor of mass communications and longtime member of the faculty senate. "I was concerned that if a president was chosen who wasn't forceful and dynamic, we might be in for some problems. Well, Maravene Loeschke is forceful and dynamic."
Vatz called Loeschke "simply the best administrator I've ever seen."
Although economic constraints are a given for public universities these days, officials expressed confidence in her ability to transcend tight budgets. Under Loeschke, Mansfield added new online master's programs in leadership, nursing and library science, created a graphics design major and expanded campus housing for the first time in 40 years — despite 50 percent cuts in state funding that forced staff reductions.
"The fact that she's had to deal with tough times and make tough decisions but continued to flourish was very attractive to us," said regents Chairman Orlan Johnson.
Chancellor William E. Kirwan said Loeschke's sense of allegiance to Towson, combined with "masterful" handling of difficult fiscal times, made her an easy choice for the job. He predicted that her communication skills, honed in the theater, will help her improve sometimes-contentious relations between Towson and surrounding neighborhoods.
"What impressed me so much was her ability to articulate her values and her exceptional skill as a listener," he said. "It's really rare."
Under Loeschke, he said, Mansfield stepped up efforts to revitalize its community in north central Pennsylvania.
Loeschke, a Baltimore native and graduate of Parkville High School, will replace Robert L. Caret, who left to become president of the University of Massachusetts system this spring.
Marcia G. Welsh has served as acting president and will continue in that position until Loeschke joins the university in January.
Caret was also a former Towson professor who returned to the university after serving as president of another institution. Towson expanded aggressively under his watch, adding more than 1,000 on-campus beds, starting new graduate programs and making plans to open a campus in Harford County. The university is on pace to pass College Park as the state's largest educator of undergraduates.
When Caret departed after eight years, system leaders said they wanted a replacement who would keep pushing Towson to get bigger and better.
"She brings an interesting mix of appreciating Towson's history and culture with a willingness to be open to new ideas and a creative vision for the future," said David Nevins, a former regent who served on the search committee that helped select Loeschke. "I couldn't be more excited about the choice."
Loeschke earned bachelor's and master's degrees from Towson, and served on the faculty for more than 30 years, beginning in 1970. She earned her doctorate in philosophy from The Union Institute in Cincinnati.
She met her husband, Richard Gillespie, at Towson, where he founded the theater program in which she studied and taught. She joked that she had to wait 10 years after taking her husband's class to fall in love with him, because "he was too tough."
Loeschke rose to become dean of fine arts and communication at the university. While at Towson, she also wrote plays and acted in productions around the Baltimore area.
She said theater prepared her to be a college president in ways she never imagined, forcing her to speak boldly in public, to improvise and to apply critical thinking to everything from set design to social dynamics.
"There isn't a whole lot that I need as president that I didn't get from my theater program," she said.
Loeschke taught one of the first classes Nevins took as a student at Towson in the early 1970s. "I remember her as this incredibly vivacious, enthusiastic figure, kind of jumping all over the stage," he said. "She wanted all of us, none of whom were going to be theater majors, to be as excited about the arts as she was."
He said Loeschke's passion for students continues to stand out almost 40 years later. "Towson has 21,000 students, but I have no doubt that she will figure a way to care about and get to know almost every one," Nevins said. "That's what she's about."
Student body president Matt Sikorski said he was looking for a leader who cares about the student experience. "Just from my brief research and what I've heard, it seems that she is very connected to Towson and very connected to the faculty," he said of Loeschke. "It seems like they hit the nail on the head with this decision. We wanted someone who really wants to be here, and it sounds like this is a dream job for her."
Faculty members said Loeschke also showed grit as an administrator, taking on problems that intimidated others and mastering the details of professors' biographies before weighing in on difficult tenure decisions.
"I didn't always agree with her as I wouldn't always agree with any administrator," Vatz said. "But whenever she faced a disagreement, she gave reasons and evidence. The word that I think of with her, above all, is integrity."
Loeschke, whose annual salary will start at $275,000, said she's not ready to reveal her specific plans for Towson and won't do so until she has met with numerous faculty members and students. "I'm not coming in with ideas to shove down people's throats," she said.
Before taking the presidency at Mansfield in 2006, Loeschke was provost of Wilkes University in Pennsylvania.
With 3,400 students, Mansfield is much smaller than Towson, which has about 21,000. But like Towson, it's a public university that focuses heavily on undergraduate education while offering graduate programs in a few targeted areas.
Loeschke had to steer the university through a time of deep cuts in the Pennsylvania state budget, implementing a new strategic plan and reorganizing the university's administration along the way.
She said her favorite question for students was, "How is the world going to be better because you're in it?"
Amid the administrative challenges, Loeschke maintained a small connection to the stage. To thank the Mansfield community for a warm welcome, she and her husband delivered a free performance of the play "Love Letters" by A.R. Gurney. She said they plan to do the same at Towson.
Loeschke said she and her husband, who has retired from teaching, are delighted to return home. "You don't always, in life, get to come full circle," she said. "It's just such a privilege to be able to do it."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun