Presidents under Fire: They Mis-Speak, Mis-Spend, and Worst of All, They Mishandle the Press. but Faster, Smarter Action Can Save Troubled Presidencies. (Public Relations)

By Gow, Fiona | University Business, July-August 2002 | Go to article overview

Presidents under Fire: They Mis-Speak, Mis-Spend, and Worst of All, They Mishandle the Press. but Faster, Smarter Action Can Save Troubled Presidencies. (Public Relations)


Gow, Fiona, University Business


In September 2001, the Maryland Board of Regents appointed Mark Perkins president of Towson University (the second largest institution of higher learning in Maryland), confident that he would elevate the school's prestige. He'd done well as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, growing that school's endowment by $12.4 million; there were great hopes that Perkins would be able to boost Towson's endowment similarly. Yet, in the almost seven months of his presidency, Perkins managed to estrange much of the campus community, and at the same time, give the media a whipping post of self-aggrandizement and financial recklessness. On April 5, 2002--amid a flood of criticism from the campus community regarding budget overruns in the presidential residence renovation--the regents asked him to resign. How could a university presidency go so wrong, so fast?

TOWSON AND PERKINS: BLUNDER UPON BLUNDER

The boom dropped on Perkins in March 2002, when the Baltimore Sun reported that renovation expenditures on the presidential residence (purchased by the university in August 2001) had somehow gone $850,000 over budget. According to Mike Morris, a writer for The Towerlight, Towson's campus newspaper, the campus community became even more alarmed when it was revealed that the overruns included expenditures for an elevator and a $25,000 entertainment center. Perkins' problems were only compounded by reports that the March 15 inauguration ceremony he had produced for himself cost the school, an additional $56,000--not including the $25,000 inaugural, medallion he sported at the event. Onlookers were quoted as saying that they didn't understand why Perkins was making large, and to their eyes, superficial investments when the governor had just announced budget cuts for the university. In his own defense, the president eventually stated that he believed the expenditures were prudent investments that would increase contributions to the university in the long term. According to Perkins' detailed April 8 resignation letter (posted online and delivered to the campus community), he said that he had only wished to raise the prestige of the University. To do this, he added, he believed he needed a suitable presidential residence. He saw the house, he said, as a "place for conveying Towson University's history and tradition, and for bringing leaders in the state together with alumni, students, professors, potential donors, artists, and others to advance the interests of the University."

Though Perkins' contract allowed him to continue teaching at the university, the board bought him out of this option for an estimated $400,000.

ORANGE COAST: SILENCE IS NOT GOLDEN

At Orange Coast College, a well-respected community college of 25,000 students in Orange County, CA, President Margaret Gratton came under attack, first by the Los Angeles Times and eventually by the international media, for her handling of a campus controversy. It was one week after the 9/11 attacks when the Orange Coast administrators received complaints from four Muslim students who claimed that political science professor Kenneth Hearlson called them "Nazis" and "terrorists." Hearlson was immediately placed on paid administrative leave pending investigation, with the understanding that the inquiry would move swiftly.

But the investigation dragged on for months, during which time the professor appeared on numerous talk shows, discussing his case. While the media besieged Orange Coast from the outside, inside the university leaders believed they were handling the crisis in a responsible way. According to Gratton, from the moment the controversy broke, her administration was working hard to rebuild an atmosphere of trust.

"We held six or seven forums. Our academic senate sponsored a teach-in. We had people from various organizations in southern California speak on terrorism, the environment, political issues, and international. …

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