Towson University's Caret Prepares to Ship up to Boston
Outgoing TU president: "The bottom line is (Towson's) a college town."
When Robert Caret came to what was then Towson State College in 1974 to teach chemistry, the town was a much different place.
In the 37 years since—of which Caret spent 29 in Towson—Towson University has morphed into what he calls "that other large state university."
To community residents who have complained about the school's growth during his tenure, Caret says: "It's a college town."
The Towson University president officially leaves his post today and starts next Monday as president of the University of Massachusetts, in Boston. A New England native, Caret earned his bachelor's degree in 1969 from Suffolk University, also in Boston.
"I like to say that I've spent half my personal life here in Towson and 75 percent of my professional life here at Towson," says Caret in a phone interview, adding that the move is "very much like going home again."
Caret, 63, returned to helm Towson at an awkward time in 2003, as the university was recovering from the brief, tumultuous tenure of predecessor Mark Perkins, who resigned after questions arose about his lavish spending on renovations to his state-owned mansion in Baltimore City’s Guilford neighborhood.
In the past decade, the university has surged to unlikely national renown for its debate team, marching band and minority graduation rates. Enrollment surged, too, to 21,840 students in 2010, up from 17,488 in 2002, before Caret returned.
That growth came at a cost to community relations: Many neighbors felt the university had grown without considering the impact of more students moving into the community. Some residents feel the university should build more on-campus housing before boosting enrollment.
Still, community leaders credit Caret with taking steps to clamp down on student misbehavior throughout Towson neighborhoods with programs like community ambassadors, grants to Baltimore County police and citations for nuisance houses.
On the other side of campus, Caret clashed with Rodgers Forge residents last year over the recently finalized Tiger Arena project. Original plans had the arena just steps away from its Rodgers Forge neighbors, catching community leaders off-guard and forcing designers back to the drawing board.
The conflict with the community cost the university millions more, but Caret and community leaders agreed on a hillier site on the other side of the existing Towson Center.
Caret says the university tries to work with residents and he chalks up continued tensions to "the ones who are out in front and have a lot to say."
"When you have 25,000 young people in the middle of a community, it's going to have an impact, but I think the large number of people respect the fact we've done as much as we can to minimize the negative and maximize the positive," Caret says.
Caret continues: "The bottom line is it's a college town, it's going to continue to be a college town, it's going to be more and more of a college town. So the ones that enjoy a college town are going to enjoy it the most."
But all the compromises made to placate the community before building Tiger Arena will mean little if the university's bet on athletics doesn't pay off.
When asked what he wished could have gone better during his tenure, Caret laughs as he recalls the troubled recent history of Towson's athletics program. Towson University has all the amenities and the "look" of an accomplished mid-major school, but such sheen is nowhere to be found in the records of Towson's flagship teams.
The football team went 1-10 in 2010 under second-year head coach Rob Ambrose. The men's basketball team went 4-26 and lost 17 straight. Neither won a single conference game.
Towson hired University of Pittsburgh assistant Pat Skerry as its new basketball coach this month to turn the program around. In September, Caret brought in an energetic new athletic director, Mike Waddell, who has launched initiatives to better sell the program to neighbors and sponsors.
"I feel if these two people can't do it, nobody can do it," Caret says.
David Nevins, a friend who runs a Hunt Valley public relations firm, recently accompanied Caret and Waddell to Houston to hire Skerry. He has ambitious goals for the Tigers.
"We have to start winning. We haven't done that in an awfully long time," Nevins says. "We will become the premier college athletic program in the Baltimore metro area, which will bring even more attention and praise to the institution even well beyond where we are today."
But the man whom many in the university say is responsible for setting them on that path won't be around to watch.
"I'd love to be able to do both things and be there to watch Towson continue to evolve," Caret says. "I just have to do it as a president emeritus instead of as a president."