Gamble on Ungar benefits Goucher

The Baltimore Sun

After a career journalist without a Ph.D. was appointed president of Goucher College in 2001, Sanford J. Ungar's peers in the ivory tower were calculating the former National Public Radio host's chances of survival.

"When they chose him, I thought people like that last either three months or a long time," said Dr. William R. Brody, president of the Johns Hopkins University. "Managing an academic institution takes a certain amount of patience. ... And if faculty don't view you as a serious academic, it makes your leadership more difficult."

Six years later, the gamble on the unconventional president with the trademark radio voice and $10 fedora appears to have paid off. "I think he's survived and thrived on both counts, which is remarkable," Brody said.

Goucher's board of trustees clearly agrees. This week, the school announced that Ungar's tenure has been extended through June 2013. In fiscal year 2006, he was the third-highest-paid Maryland private college president, taking home about $330,000, though officials declined to detail his new compensation package. Applications are up 70 percent since Ungar took office and a $48 million library and student center are under construction. The Towson school's decision in 2005 to become the country's first liberal arts campus to require all students to study abroad has raised the national profile of the 122-year-old former women's college.

"He has produced exactly what we had hoped," said John M. Bond Jr., the trustees' chairman. "With regard to internationalization, increased growth in the endowment, improvement of the physical plant, you name it, Sandy has led the way."

Ungar, 62, also gets high marks from students and professors, though his urgency in making major changes has ruffled some faculty feathers.

"I love what I'm doing," Ungar said this week. But "there were some nibbles coming around" from larger campuses searching for new leadership, "and I wanted to know whether to pay attention to them." There also were inquiries from would-be presidential administrations wondering whether the Democrat would consider a political appointment.

"I decided probably not," he said.

A Wilkes-Barre, Pa., native and son of Central European immigrants, Ungar wrote for the Harvard Crimson student newspaper while an undergraduate in Cambridge, Mass. He spent about a decade as both a continent-hopping correspondent and Washington journalist, and has written or edited six books. But it was a stint in the early 1980s as host of NPR's All Things Considered newsmagazine with which many people still associate Ungar.

"My sister still has friends who swear they listen to me on the way home," he said. "And I left 24 years ago."

From 1986 to 1999, Ungar was dean of American University's School of Communication and was then tapped by President Bill Clinton to head up the 1,150-employee Voice of America, the government's foreign broadcasting operation.

When George W. Bush took office in 2001, Ungar set his sights on a college president position. Though he had never visited Goucher before interviewing there, he was taken by the prospect of putting his stamp on a picturesque campus still emerging from a painful transition to coeducation in the mid-1980s.

The proximity to Washington, where his wife is a doctor, made the job feasible.

He has become an avuncular figure on the rolling campus, greeting students by name as he strides down "Van Meter Highway" beneath a felt hat picked up for a song at a Pennsylvania hardware store and sometimes walking his golden retriever, Tekka. While recently breakfasting on a bacon-and-egg sandwich in the cafeteria, a student came up to introduce Ungar to a friend she made while studying abroad in Thailand.

"I wouldn't have met her without Goucher," the student cooed, hugging her new friend while Ungar beamed.

Moments later, he laughingly insisted the pretty scene was not staged for a reporter's benefit.

In recent years, the journalist and historian has made a study of the college presidency, urging his colleagues to use their offices to shape public discourse from outside the political fray.

Ungar's tenure so far has coincided with a period of contentious U.S. foreign policy grounded in the forceful pursuit of democratization abroad - and he has argued from his own "bully pulpit" that bullying foreigners to embrace American ideals is misguided.

It is a theme that complements Goucher's study abroad mandate, which Ungar envisions as sending young ambassadors overseas as listeners and students, rather than as missionaries.

Though the international initiative engendered plenty of good press for the little-known college, it has also created tensions with the faculty. The study-abroad plan was approved in 2002 by the board of trustees but not until 2005 by the faculty, many of whom worried that Ungar was being hasty.

"A sizable portion of the faculty feel they have been left out and not consulted in a deep way," said psychology professor Richard Pringle. "I'm one of those people that feels Sandy was right, but maybe not right in how to get there."

Ungar concedes there have been growing pains. "I'm pretty impatient with the pace of change," he said. "I've probably learned to consult more than it was my instinct to do."

While the study abroad requirement is Ungar's most visible contribution to Goucher's modern identity, Bond says it is the president's improvement of the college's financial affairs that best ensures the school's future. In the first few years of his tenure, Ungar presided over a declining endowment, in part because the school was bleeding its savings to cover merit-scholarships designed to lure students away from competing colleges.

In 2001, the average student was paying only about 50 percent of tuition. Today, they pay closer to 65 percent, with more of the scholarships aimed at needy students, Ungar said.

Despite fewer incentives given to high-ability students, the number of undergraduates enrolled has increased from about 1,220 in 2001 to 1,475 this year. And the academic profile of incoming freshmen has remained stable, with about a 3.2 high school grade average and SAT math and verbal scores near 1200.

Meanwhile, the college endowment has grown to about $220 million, up from $139 million in 2003.

Ungar said his priorities for the next six years include increased diversification of the student body and renovation of older buildings on campus.

One lingering concern is Goucher's graduation rate, which remains relatively low compared with similar schools. Just 70 percent of freshmen graduate within six years. Ungar attributes much of the attrition to students transferring elsewhere.

"Sometimes we were somebody's second choice, so they come in and get good grades and then apply to their first choice the second time around," he said. "It's a symptom of where we are in our development ... but we're moving up the food chain."

Sanford J. Ungar

Job: President of Goucher College

Age: 62

Birthplace: Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

Homes: Washington and on-campus president's house

Education: Bachelor of Arts, Harvard College, 1966; Master of Science, the London School of Economics and Political Science, 1967

Compensation: $329,504 (FY 2006)

Selected books written: The Papers & The Papers: An Account of the Legal and Political Battle over the Pentagon Papers (1972); FBI: An Uncensored Look Behind the Walls (1976); Fresh Blood: The New American Immigrants (1995)

Now reading: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Avocations: Sawing wood, swimming

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