Selling Towson

The Baltimore Sun

The Facebook page of Towson University President Robert Caret lists a line from Pat Conroy as his favorite quotation:

"Why do they not teach you that time is a finger snap and an eye blink, and that you should not allow a moment to pass you by without taking joyous, ecstatic note of it, not wasting a moment of its swift, breakneck circuit?"

In six years at Towson, Caret has not wasted a second. The university's recent skirmish with neighbors in Rodgers Forge, over the location of a new 5,000-seat arena, is an example of both Caret's urgency and his diplomacy. He wants to step up athletics, to broaden Towson's name recognition, and he got recalcitrant neighbors to sign off on the arena.

At the same time, he has been planning a satellite campus in Harford County and a friendly takeover of Baltimore Hebrew University, as well as adding thousands of students and starting construction projects valued at a half-billion dollars. Research grants and contracts have tripled in five years.

Towson, for years a sleepy university with a good reputation for teaching but little ambition, is on the move.

Observers give much of the credit to Caret, a 61-year-old from Maine with a hyperactive metabolism and a down-to-earth style. Caret refers to his colleagues as "guys" and "gals," in a disarming New England accent that hasn't quite worn off. He keeps a guitar in his office.

"He's very charismatic," says Janice Moore, president of the Rodgers Forge Community Association. "But he's very focused. He's very driven."

Part of his mission is growth, to bring the university attention and political clout. A decade ago, Towson had 15,900 students. It's at 21,000 today, and Caret projects 25,000 in five years. He's building new dorms to accommodate the students and give the campus a more residential feel. A $122 million College of Liberal Arts is under construction - the first new academic building in 30 years - and it will frame a new quad.

Towson produces more nurses and more teachers than any other university in the state. It has the largest undergraduate business school and as many African-American master's students as Morgan State University. Its retention and graduation rates are among the highest in the state.

Caret reels off the statistics with ease, and obvious pride. "I'm a competitive guy, but I don't do this for competitive reasons." Rather, he wants people to understand Towson's contribution to the state. But, he adds with a grin, "My presidential colleagues probably won't say that's true."

Selling Towson is part of his job. The university has launched a "Thinking Outside" marketing campaign to promote its service to the region, such as the nursing students who work with the homeless and education students who work in city schools.

There has been an impact in Annapolis. When Caret arrived at Towson in 2003, the university received 29 percent of its operating budget from the state, a lower percentage than at other state universities. Caret has raised the figure to 40 percent and is aggressive about going after his share.

"It's a matter of balance, because my kids are mostly from Maryland, and all their parents are paying taxes, too," he says.

Improving the image includes athletics. Towson has stepped up to the Colonial Athletic Association, which includes the College of William & Mary, James Madison University and the University of Delaware. Caret had pushed the athletic department to schedule higher-profile non-conference opponents. The Towson football team opened last season against Navy. This fall it opens at Northwestern.

"This is not coincidence," said David Nevins, a member of the state board of regents and an informal adviser to Caret. "This is part of a marketing strategy to upgrade the opponents, not even necessarily from an athletic standpoint but from a reputational standpoint."

Nevins, who owns a Hunt Valley-based public relations firm, is part of what Caret calls his "kitchen cabinet" - a small group of friends and advisers who help him sort through academic and political matters. The group meets every few months at a member's house or a restaurant to give Caret feedback.

The challenge for Towson is to make itself stand out, Nevins said. The University of Maryland, College Park receives attention because it is the state flagship, he said. The University of Maryland, Baltimore County has highly regarded science and technology programs. The historically black colleges have unique missions. "And then you end up with a handful of other institutions that are fighting for attention, and attention equals dollars," Nevins said.

Towson has started a joint MBA program with the University of Baltimore - angering Morgan State, which has its own program. Towson has created new research centers and brought all of its research centers under one vice president, to foster growth. The emphasis is on applications that benefit the community, such as mapping programs for government or kiosks for the state Motor Vehicle Administration.

Caret, a chemistry professor and administrator at Towson for 21 years before being named president of San Jose State University, has won over the faculty. They praise his direct, open style and the team he has put in place, particularly Provost James Clements.

"This is the best group of leaders I think the university has ever had, all put together," said communication and rhetoric professor Richard Vatz, who has taught at Towson for 30 years. "Bob Caret is really just a treasure to this university. ... He seems to be a genuinely concerned individual. His motives are always to help the university. His motives are always honest."

In the 1990s, the state university system chancellor neglected Towson and made the campus feel inferior, Vatz said. But when William E. Kirwan became chancellor in 2002, "the change was like night and day. Brit Kirwan supports all kinds of universities within the system doing what they do best."

What Towson does best, Caret says, is teach. Some on campus fear that growth will dilute the small classes and student-teacher connections that have distinguished Towson. To that end, Caret says he will not pursure growth of the campus unless there is state support. Because of the state budget crisis, there is no money for enrollment growth in the next academic year. So Caret won't add any more students.

"Enhancement money's gone, and enrollment money is gone," he said. "We're just trying to pay the heat."

But he still has initiatives under way. This year, Caret is starting a distinguished professor program to bring leaders in fields such as government and politics to campus as visiting professors. He expects to break ground soon on a new dormitory. Already, 5,700 students live on campus.

As the student body grows, Caret is finding new ways to keep in touch with them. There's the Facebook page. He also has a blog that gets 1,000 hits a month and a podcast in which he talks to student leaders and others. And next month, he will be holding his first "study break" in Second Life - an online virtual world where he can chat with students, faculty and staff. He has already created a lifelike "President Caret" avatar to represent him online.

Now, he says, in the real world he gets recognized all the time. At the opening of a Baltimore steakhouse this month, three current or former students stopped him before he even sat down.

"It's an extremely personal job where you become sort of the living logo of the campus," he says. Towson's official mascot is the tiger. In Caret, some say, the university has found a leader to match that mascot

plans for growth

* $122 million College of Liberal Arts building, to open in 2011

* $45 million Towson Center Arena, to open in 2011

* 25,000 students by 2013

* 1,800 new student beds in six years

* Distinguished professor program to bring high-profile officials to campus

the university, by the numbers


Fall 2008 enrollment


Average SAT for freshman class


Acres of main York Road campus




Degrees conferred in 2008

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