Sights set high for head of college Duncan must sort through conflicting demands, visions


When she was interim president at Catonsville Community College for the 1990-1991 school year, Mary Ellen Duncan's first challenge wasn't layoffs or student protests; she had to face up to a series of bomb threats.

After one of the anonymous calls, authorities closed buildings until an exhaustive search was completed.

But Duncan was getting tired of the threats.

"She walked right through police barricades and started checking buildings herself," recalled Ardell Terry, who at the time was Duncan's assistant. "Police were telling her, 'You can't do that.' She would say, 'Oh, yes, I can.' She wasn't afraid."

Duncan will become the third president of Howard Community College July 1. Relentless zeal and determination are some of the qualities Duncan's friends and former colleagues say she will bring to her new job.

Most think she will need them as she sorts through conflicting demands and priorities for a blueprint that will carry the Columbia institution into the next century.

Visions for the future of the two-year college vary.

Richard Story, executive director of the Howard County Economic Development Authority, wants the school to strengthen its ties with the business community.

State Del. Elizabeth Bobo hopes that the administration will pay more attention to the liberal and fine arts portion of the curriculum.

Gerald Brock, a former member of the college's board of trustees, thinks the school should focus on evaluating learning in the classroom.

Roger Caplan, a current board member, says the college must work with county high schools to help teen-agers attend college.

Duncan says she welcomes the pressure that comes with this challenge.

"That's what I love to do," says Duncan, who has been the president of the State University of New York at Delhi since 1991. "I love to think about the future and improve the service and education we can offer to the community. That's the whole reason I'm in this business."

Figures from the Maryland Higher Education Commission indicate that Duncan has inherited a school that faces tough choices.

Howard is the eighth-largest community college of 20 in the state with a fall 1997 enrollment of 5,081. The school is sixth in state aid with a total contribution of more than $5.5 million to its $30 million budget.

But the school's students also pay the highest community college tuition in the state. Tuition for a Howard resident with 15 credits each semester is expected to rise from $2,370 to $2,430 for the 1998-1999 school year. Residents outside the county will pay $4,560 and $6,600, respectively -- up from $4,020 and $6,540.

Those statistics concern County Councilman Charles C. Feaga, whose grandson will attend the community college this fall.

"My fear is that if we grow too fast, we could charge students too much," says the West Friendship Republican, who is running for county executive this year. "I hope we have steady growth, not by leaps and bounds."

Duncan's two predecessors left distinct impressions on the school.

Alfred J. Smith Jr., the college's first president, presided over the college's growth from a consultant's report and a construction contract for a single building in 1970 to an impressive 119-acre campus in Columbia serving 2,000 students when he retired in 1981.

Dwight A. Burrill, who took over in 1981 and left in September, did much to make the school what it is today. During his tenure, the college opened a branch in Hickory Ridge village and initiated building projects, including a cultural arts center and additional classrooms.

Since 1990, the student population has grown nearly 60 percent, and the full-time faculty almost 40 percent.

Perhaps Burrill's best-known accomplishment is the campus-wide emphasis on technology as he pushed to integrate cyberspace into the daily curriculum.

Three years ago, the school opened a distance-learning television classroom that permits students in Columbia to enroll in classes taught elsewhere in the state. Computers are now used in many classrooms, in subjects as diverse as English and math.

In 1996, the college offered eight courses -- including composition, creative writing, music appreciation and economics -- on the Internet.

"There was a lot of discussion about technology [during the presidential search] and how far ahead [of] the curve Howard Community College was," said Ed Ely, a member of the presidential search committee and a vice president for the Rouse Co. "I think everyone understands that it's going to be the challenge of every school to find new ways to bring computers into the classes."

But while technology remains a priority, observers are drawing attention to other issues.

Christina Patrick, president of the student-run Black Leadership Organization (BLO), says the school needs to attract more African-American men to the campus.

According to college figures, about 18 percent of the student population is African-American. But less than half of those 913 pupils are men.

The administration sought to allocate $15,000 in the fiscal 1999 operating budget to support marketing campaigns and increase staff contact hours with African-American men, but the measure was pared out by the board of trustees.

"You see more Caucasian than African-American males because most people think of Howard as being a white school," Patrick says. "You only get a certain type of perspective, and soon people are going to ask themselves, 'Why go to a school where there are not many African-American males?' "

Story, of the Economic Development Authority, says he would like to see the school strengthen its link to the business community.

"I really believe that a community college needs to be directly linked to the business community and providing training necessary for the community right now," he says. "That's where the real growth has been."

But Delegate Bobo says she is concerned that academic areas such as literature, theater and music are being ignored.

"With the emphasis on high-tech jobs and the community wanting to have high-tech jobs. it's rightfully so that the emphasis is on this," Bobo says. "But I think it's equally important that we not lose sight of the fine arts. At the risk of sounding dramatic, it's part of our souls."

Caplan, who has been a trustee since 1995, says the college should work with area high schools to help improve standardized reading and math scores.

"If a student is coming to us and not reading at a college level, it's not the state's problem, but it's our problem," says Caplan, who owns a public relations company in Columbia. "We're all in the same business, and their problems are our problems and their needs are our needs."

But all seem to agree that the right person has been found to pilot the college.

Caplan notes that Duncan engineered a successful battle against a proposal before New York legislators to consolidate some campuses in the State University of New York system and close others.

"She has been through a lot of challenges," Caplan says. "She's literally had to sing for her bacon. And each time she does, she comes up with some innovative programming to help the institution."

With public funding expected to increase only slightly over the next few years, Joan I. Athen, another trustee, says Duncan's fund-raising experience should be useful.

"With limited funding on the horizon, you're going to have to be creative," Athen says. "I think she has good background in that."

Duncan's former colleagues say her biggest advantage is a style that does not draw attention to herself.

"Mary Ellen has a quiet, determined way about her," says Fran Turcotte, who worked with Duncan in the marketing department at Catonsville Community College. "But it's her ability to communicate a vision and get people on board with her in one direction that is so exciting."

Duncan says she is ready for the challenge.

"I'm energized," she says. "The board of trustees wants more and better, and they have the energy to see that through. The faculty is strong, and the students want the education. There's a lot in place to take the college forward."

Pub Date: 3/08/98

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