GREEN BAY, WIS. — GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The man who will head Towson University in July is, by all accounts, a driven administrator who managed to take a struggling Midwestern campus -- the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay -- and put it back on its feet.
Some criticize his tactics, contending that Mark L. Perkins focused too much on building projects and not enough on academic improvement during his seven-year tenure as chancellor, or president, of the school. They also find fault with his brusque style, which didn't always go over well in a friendly Midwestern town.
But even those who criticize Perkins concede that he did a good job.
"He won't take you for a ride without bumps," says Jerrold C. Rodesch, secretary of the faculty at UWGB and a history professor there since 1971. Perkins wasn't always popular with the faculty, Rodesch says, noting that Perkins' hard-driving personality stood out at Green Bay and he was known for being tough on his staff. But Rodesch believes that the university is better off than it was before the Perkins era, which began in 1994: "Under Mark, this institution has made a remarkable turnaround."
Rodesch and others at the university say Perkins gave UWGB a stronger identity, helped define long-term goals, and led efforts to improve facilities on campus. More recently, in response to a faculty challenge several years ago, Perkins helped create the Learning Experience Initiative, a program to improve academics at the school.
"He doesn't really see barriers," says Howard Cohen, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at the school and Perkins' racquetball partner. "He got the campus understanding it wasn't stuck where it was."
One of Perkins' favorite sayings, which smacks of his native Virginia, is, "Can we make that puppy hunt?"
Perkins is remaining mum about his plans for Towson. He says he wants to get to know the university: "This is about ... working with an institution that is already doing extraordinary things."
Perkins earns $148,000 at UWGB and will earn $200,000 at Towson.
Perkins' greatest gift, say those who have worked with him in Green Bay, lies in understanding the power of marketing. They say he spent much of his time selling UWGB to state legislators and the Board of Regents rather than focusing on internal affairs.
"He knows how to make the case for the university, and doesn't take 'no' for an answer," says Cohen.
"Mark is really a salesman," Rodesch says. "He can deliver the message very effectively."
Perkins, 51, grew up in Richmond, Va., the son of a cashier and a homemaker. To put himself through school, he worked as a camp counselor, groundskeeper and restaurant cook. After graduating from St. Andrews Presbyterian College in Laurinburg, N.C., in 1972, he earned his master's in psychometrics and statistics (1974) and his doctorate in psychometrics and research design (1976) from the University of Georgia.
Before arriving at Green Bay, Perkins served as executive vice president for administration at California State University, Stanislaus, in Turlock, Calif., and held senior positions at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.
UWGB, less than 30 years old when Perkins arrived in 1994, had struggled since its inception to stand out in the Wisconsin system, says Christopher D. Sampson, associate director of marketing and communication at the school. It was founded in 1965 as an experimental school with a then-new "interdisciplinary studies" major. From the first, Sampson says, the new university received a mixed reception from Green Bay residents. Many of them worked at manufacturing jobs that didn't require college degrees. The university promoted its focus on environmental studies, Sampson says, which didn't go over well with the families whose livelihood depended on the paper mills lining the nearby Lower Fox River.
During the recession of the early 1970s, Sampson says, the university had trouble attracting students and funds. Students from the area, many of them the first in their families to attend college, wanted to major in biology or journalism, not in disciplines such as "human development" or "communications processes," which some considered esoteric. Of the state's 13 four-year colleges, Sampson says, Green Bay always was the second- or third-smallest in enrollment and funding.
Before Perkins arrived, Sampson says, the school had been playing down what made it different and selling itself as similar to other Wisconsin schools. Perkins changed that, Sampson says, leading efforts to rediscover, and market, the school's distinct identity.
Perkins' other accomplishments, Sampson says, include:
Helping to secure funding for a $20 million classroom facility scheduled to open in August, the first major academic addition in 25 years.
Securing $17 million in state money to expand the school's laboratory sciences building.
Persuading UW regents to support a planned expansion of the sports center, which will provide room for the NCAA Division I men's basketball team to play on campus. The state legislature has not voted on the funds.
Professors at UWGB seem to be Perkins' strongest critics. Harvey J. Kaye, a professor of history and social change and development at the school, says he would have liked Perkins to pay less attention to facilities and more to academics, which he believes have languished since the school's founding.
"He made his first priority external things," Kaye says. "He's not an academic-affairs person." Kaye says he stood up at a public meeting several years ago and challenged Perkins to pay more attention to academics at the school.
Kaye says Perkins has spent too much time trying to secure funding for the athletic facility -- which could cost up to $61 million -- instead of, say, working to bring prominent speakers to campus.
Other staff members at the university say Perkins' fast-paced style wasn't always well-received in the sedate and friendly Midwest.
"He can be very goal-oriented and driven," says David Littig, an associate professor of political science at UWGB. "That has to have an impact with people who want to think it over and over and over. ... In an academic setting, [that] is not well-received." As a result, Littig says, some staff turnover followed Perkins' arrival at UWGB.
"There are some people who feel he pushed his staff too hard," Rodesch says. And Rodesch and Kaye criticize Perkins for the way he handled salary questions.
Sampson says salaries are an issue at all Wisconsin campuses, but UWGB professors feel that they work harder than professors at other state universities because the student-faculty ratio there is the highest in the state. Other than that, he said, there has been no public debate about salaries.
Despite his criticisms, Kaye doesn't fault Perkins for the way he has run the school. In the current academic climate, he says, that's how smart chancellors succeed.
"Their careers are based on buildings," Kaye says. "Not the great administrators. But the standard folk, if they want to leave their mark, they'll leave their mark in that way."