When Robert Caret was president of San Jose State University, he was credited with reinvigorating an urban campus mired in racial and community tension, and pushed the Silicon Valley college to embrace the Internet. In the same role at Towson University, he oversaw an explosion of growth and positioned the college as an alternative to the state's flagship university in College Park.
Caret, now head of the five-campus University of Massachusetts system, was tapped this week to lead the University System of Maryland. As the successor to Chancellor William E. Kirwan, he'll help set the agenda for 12 of Maryland's public institutions, including Towson, University of Maryland, College Park, Coppin State University and University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Caret, 67, has been known for transformative leadership at the institutions he's led during a 40-year career in academia.
Described as gregarious and charming, he's credited with the ability to defuse the controversies he has provoked as he pushed for change. He's lauded for his fundraising prowess and his ability to broker partnerships with the private sector.
"Bob reached out to the community and brought the community in, instead of the community going to him," said Rick Callender, a local leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People during Caret's presidency at San Jose State. "Bob was like a politician."
Yet as president of Towson, he upset officials at Morgan State University for starting a master's program in business administration that many considered a duplication of efforts at the area's historically black colleges. And the enrollment boom at Towson angered neighbors when a lack of dormitory space pushed more students to live in the community.
"I think he was a very bold, aggressive, strong booster for Towson University," said David Marks, who represents Towson on the Baltimore County Council. "But you do hear complaints from neighborhood groups that Towson's growth occurred without a plan to deal with student housing."
Caret is slated to succeed Kirwan on July 1, after Maryland lawmakers will have crafted a budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Caret says he's keeping an eye on the state's budget gap — projected at $1.2 billion over the next 18 months — aware that some concerns might still be unresolved when he comes aboard.
In a strong New England accent that traces back to his roots in Biddeford, Maine, Caret has already begun to say "we" when speaking about the University System of Maryland.
"We do need the state to step up," Caret said. "We have huge capital needs. Towson University will be 150 years old next year, and most other campuses in the system are in a similar age group. We have this huge backlog of deferred maintenance issues."
Zac McGee, president of the university system student council and a student at Towson, said his peers will press Caret to keep tuition affordable. He said students and administrators must "do what we can to make sure students don't bear the brunt of any damage" from the state's shortfall.
University system officials said Caret was chosen from a pool of five finalists narrowed down from hundreds of candidates for chancellor. He's due to make $600,000 annually over five years and will likely reside in Hidden Waters, the chancellor's residence in Baltimore County.
Caret said he's kept up with the state's fiscal situation since leaving Towson University three years ago to head the University of Massachusetts system. He said Maryland's financial woes are similar to those he's been tackling up north.
Henry Thomas III, chairman of the UMass Board of Trustees, said Caret led an effort to persuade Massachusetts lawmakers to pay 50 percent of students' college costs. In return, he said, the system would freeze tuition and fees for two years. Thomas said the result was a $100 million state infusion of cash, the largest in the system's history.
Caret also staged "listening tours" across Massachusetts that became an annual outreach to the public and private sectors. He guided a fundraising drive that netted $117 million for fiscal year 2014, a 12 percent increase over the previous year, and implemented an efficiency program that officials say has saved $226 million since 2011. He endorsed a $3.4 billion spending plan for renovations over the next five years that was approved this month.
"We're disappointed that he is leaving because we have been accustomed to his excellence and moving the university forward," Thomas said. "But we also know that he has a challenge ahead of him, and it puts him in a place he's very familiar with."
Caret earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Suffolk University in Boston and a doctorate in organic chemistry from the University of New Hampshire before beginning his career as a chemistry professor at Towson in 1974. He rose to provost and executive vice president before San Jose State lured him away in 1995.
In San Jose, he encountered a university that was "staid in its ways," said Phil Boyce, a member of the school's Tower Foundation Board of Directors.
To ease racial and community tension on campus, Caret made the African American Studies program a priority and put together an advisory group of faculty, staff and students that brought grievances out into the open, said Callender, the NAACP leader.
Caret also joined with the city of San Jose to press for a $177.5 million library that both residents and students use. He focused on the Internet and engineering, bolstered its football program and went on a campus building spree.
"He was really a visionary, but different than most because he was an action visionary," Boyce said. "Most visionaries don't get the job done."
Caret returned to Towson in 2003 as president. He was lauded for creating partnerships with business and civic groups, raising graduation rates and leading a capital campaign.
"Bob has been successful in fat times and he's been successful in lean times," said David Nevins, a former chairman of the Maryland system's Board of Regents and a Towson alumnus. "There is little question that the next several years, particularly in public higher education in Maryland, will be leaner times than we're used to."
Towson math professor Jay Zimmerman, a past chairman of the university system faculty council, said Caret maintained good relations with the Towson faculty.
"He started as a chemistry professor, so everybody liked him and trusted him," Zimmerman said.
When Caret had to make tough decisions, Zimmerman said, he explained his reasons.
"That sort of communication is important as a president — and even more important as a chancellor."
Undergraduate enrollment grew by 23 percent to about 17,000 during Caret's tenure. But his effort to start the joint MBA program with the University of Baltimore drew a lawsuit from the historically black colleges, which alleged a pattern of unfair program duplication by traditionally white colleges.
A judge found the state had allowed such duplication and ordered the parties into mediation.
State Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a vocal opponent of the Towson-UB MBA program, said Caret "wanted to consistently duplicate those historically black college programs."
She said she was "very disappointed" in Caret's selection as chancellor.
"It's very sad to think that in spite of a case that was won in federal court you would pick the individual that was one of the violators to run the system," Conway said.
Kirwan, who goes by the nickname Brit, said that despite Caret's reputation for change, he doesn't anticipate a shake-up.
"We're not going see any radical changes, at least not at the start," Kirwan said. "He will definitely be different, but I think he and I share a lot in common in terms of our values and the role we see for higher education in advancing the economy and quality of life in the state."
UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski, who declined to throw his hat in the ring for the chancellor position — to the disappointment of some — echoed that sentiment.
"The only difference is that Brit is a Southerner and that Bob is from New England," Hrabowski joked.
Caret said he was not surprised he was approached by University System of Maryland officials to consider succeeding Kirwan.
"It brings me back to a system I was part of for 29 years," he said. "A lot of my life is invested in the University System of Maryland. I think I have a skill set that coming back as chancellor will allow me to help them continue to develop and evolve and mature."