Laslo Boyd: Kurt Schmoke and the Politics of Higher Education

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By: Laslo Boyd 

Most people in Baltimore know Kurt Schmoke as the former three-term mayor of the city.  Less well known is that he has spent much of the time since leaving City Hall in academia.  For several years, he was Dean of the Law School at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and he recalls that experience with great fondness.

For the past three years, he has been at various times General Counsel and Interim Provost at Howard. As a result, it wasn’t far into our interview that Schmoke brought up the subject of shared governance at universities. It is, he contended, a “style, not something you just pay lip service to.”

When I asked him if he had raised any concerns during the search process for president of the University of Baltimore, he told me that he had asked whether the University was looking for an academic to be its next president.  The search committee clearly recognized that his experience at Howard has given him the tools to understand the culture of universities even though his advanced degree is not a Ph.D.

That expertise, however, is not the primary asset that Schmoke brings to his new job. Under its previous two leaders, Meb Turner and Bob Bogomolny, UB has dramatically expanded its physical presence in the Mt. Royal area, has carved out a few well-regarded academic niches, and has worked in partnership with other institutions in its immediate environs. What it has not done is establish a high visibility or build a significant reputation in the broader community.  That was certainly not Turner’s style, and Bogomolny pursued external relationships on a very targeted basis.

Talking to others at UB, you keep hearing the refrain that “we are a well-kept secret.” While people at many institutions feel that they didn’t receive the respect or credit they deserve, it is a position that Schmoke has adopted as well. He described UB as a “hidden jewel”.

One of his key tasks as he sees it is to raise the visibility of the institution. He recalled a comment by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake that UB has the potential to be an “anchor institution” in the city. Can Schmoke accomplish that goal in a region filled with ambitious higher education institutions? UB does not have many of the attributes generally associated with high visibility such as prominent athletic programs, high rankings in various national publications, millions of dollars of funded research, or super-star faculty who are constantly quoted in the press.

The first answer is that his success will depend in part on his ability to become a highly visible president. Consider Freeman Hrabowski, the President of the University of Maryland Baltimore County. When most people think of UMBC, they think of Freeman.  Can Kurt Schmoke become the face of UB?

Beyond that, he mentions a series of specific goals that he has for his presidency. Schmoke plans to work with the faculty to identify academic programs that have the potential to achieve national stature. The prime candidates are likely to be specific graduate areas within the university.

A second goal is to lead a couple of capital campaigns to significantly increase the scholarship aid that UB is able to provide. Currently, the university has a rather modest $60 million endowment. Schmoke wants to increase it to at least $100 million. 

Selected improvements to the campus’s physical infrastructure represent a third goal. First would be renovating the library. Schmoke is also hopeful that the acquisition from the federal government of a postal facility adjacent to the campus can be finalized in the near future. 

Earlier press accounts have highlighted a comment the new president made about reconsidering whether UB should continue accepting students in their first two years. UB became an upper division and graduate university only under Turner in the 1980s, a position that Boglomony reversed in 2006. Schmoke has received some criticism for the comment, which came before there were any campus discussions.

In response, Schmoke had the discussions and subsequently announced that UB would continue to admit students in their first two years. No one should be surprised by that outcome. Universities are among the most conservative, resistant-to-change institutions in our society. The default response by faculty senates to just about any question is “no.” Whether it is a good decision is certainly subject to debate, but it’s a process mistake Schmoke is unlikely to repeat.

The final issue I asked him about is one that may have a huge impact on UB’s future, but one on which he had little to say. A lawsuit brought by a coalition of supporters of Morgan State is now in mediation as required by Federal Judge Catherine Blake. Schmoke has talked to Chancellor Brit Kirwan as well as representatives of the Attorney General’s Office about the case, but has not been directly involved in any of the negotiations.

Little is publicly known about the current status of the talks, but the general consensus of observers is that the parties are unlikely to reach an agreement. The crucial issue has been framed as  “duplication of programs.” Whether the remedy the court adopts involves shifting programs from historically White institutions to historically Black ones is the big question. The stakes for UB in any settlement could be profound.

Kurt Schmoke’s political standing with key office holders and his reputation in the broader community were undoubtedly among his significant appeals to the UB Search Committee. Given how rough-and-tumble elective politics can be, UB’s new president should be well-equipped for what could be a difficult political struggle to resolve the lawsuit. From the University’s perspective, they have the right president at the right time.

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.