Finding a new president for Towson University has made a mostly good start

Finding a new president for Towson University has made a mostly good start

Towson University Tiger statue in front of Stephen Hall. Photo from Academic Senate web page.

Towson University has picked its Presidential Search and Screening Committee (TUPSC) to choose its new president to replace Kim Schatzel, who went to become president at University of Louisville.

The search committee is traditionally advisory, as is the main legislative body of the university, its Academic Senate, of which I was a member for 41 years, and whose recommendations were generally but not always followed.

Towson is now the second largest university in the Maryland system with almost 20,000 students and a budget of $593 million, with $170 million coming from state taxpayers, according to university figures.

The committee will make its recommendations to Chancellor Jay Perman along with University System Regent Ellen Fish. They made a masterful, wide-ranging and thorough presentation to Towson interested parties Feb. 13 in person and by Zoom. Serious observers left with confidence in the chancellor and, by extension, the Board of Regents, which will make the final decision.

Some good news

First the good news. As a university that must, as any university, support the marketplace of ideas and academic freedom, there are some members who historically have recognized that universities do not exist to promote ideological uniformity.

Towson, for all of its excellence, has been remiss in ensuring the freedom of faculty and students to dissent from consensus in class, especially in the social sciences and humanities without consequences. It has been remiss in hiring conservatives, also in the social sciences and humanities, and remiss in ensuring the freedom of open debate.

This perspective, to which I refer as “The Academic Instinct,” is antithetical to “indoctrination.” Former President Kim Schatzel was excellent in remaining politically disinterested in this regard, save on one or two matters, such as using her good offices to support abortion in Maryland.

In fact, Towson has a grand history of excellent presidents in this regard, such as Maravene Loeschke, Jim Fisher, Hoke Smith and others. Towson’s current administration is one of the best in the country in every dimension of leadership, and this is from a hyper-critical observer.

The Towson search committee is composed of some of the top notch intellects and judgment-savvy principals on matters critical to what Towson has recently become, an R-2 Research University (high research activity) and will keep this in mind as they examine what promises to be a top notch group of aspirants.

I do not know all of the TUPSC, but when I see people whom I have respected and admired for years and decades, it gives me reason to be confident that a discerning choice will be made: One cannot surpass the integrity, sophistication and discernment  of Nancy Grasmick, Presidential Scholar; Francis Soistman, CEO, eHealth (Community); Gary Gill, CEO, Mackenzie Ventures; Lisa Plowfield, Dean, College of Health Professions; Sherman Ragland, CEO, Tradewinds International Holdings; and Suzanna Yaukey, Library Dean.

                                                                     The bad news

On the other hand, as with all universities and large committees, there are those on the TUPSC who have made a career supporting values antithetical to both freedom of speech and the marketplace of ideas, using their ad hoc power to squelch and muffle those who disagree with them and pursuing commensurate punishment stealthily. There are two of those prominently on the TUPSC as well. I sincerely do not believe their opinions will hold sway.

Towson, a university I served for 48 and 1/2 years before retiring has been a stellar example of a great university growing and improving in leaps and bounds, with a glitch here and a glitch there, all correctable. When you had a good president like President Schatzel, it is important to ensure you don’t assume that the next one doesn’t need assiduous examination.

The consensus regarding public universities is that presidents are primarily fundraisers, but this is not so true at Towson.  Presidential visibility and actions set the tone and affect the entire university, including academic excellence, the joie de vivre on campus and confidence that academic freedom and teaching excellence, as well as serious scholarship, will flourish.

The TUPSC is well positioned to assess good leaders applying to be Towson University’s next president.

About The Author

Richard Vatz

Richard E. Vatz Ph.D. retired from Towson University in January 2023 wherein he served for almost a half-century and was the longest serving member of The Academic Senate. He is Author of The Only Authentic of Persuasion: the Agenda-Spin Model (Authors Press, 2022)