Laslo Boyd: Bob Caret's Agenda

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By: Laslo Boyd

Bob Caret doesn’t officially start his new job as Chancellor of the University System of Maryland until July, but he’s already hard at work.  He’s making regular trips to Maryland to meet with university presidents, state leaders, and others whose support he will need in the coming years.

Maryland is familiar territory to Caret.  He spent much of his academic career here, including eight years as President of Towson University.   He also has experience as President of San Jose State University and of the University of Massachusetts system.  So you won’t be surprised to learn that Caret has some very definite views about what he wants to achieve in his new leadership role.

In our discussion last week, the Chancellor-designate identified several broad areas on which he expects to concentrate.  There will undoubtedly be revisions and refinements to this list as he collects more information but they give a clear sense of his educational philosophy and of his priorities.

Caret started the discussion by pointing out that, just as in Massachusetts, he wants to “look at what’s there and build on it.”  He has no intention of making changes just for the sake of change.

One set of goals relates to what might be labeled the traditional academic enterprise.  First, it is in his view critical to increase the college completion rate.   Neither the state, which provides support to public institutions, nor students who pay tuition can continue to afford the high incidence of starting and not finishing.

This objective is likely to be a centerpiece of his efforts, relating as it does to several other key goals.  Competitiveness in a global economy requires a well-educated workforce, not a workforce that is partially well educated.  Moreover, with a Republican governor who will probably pay significant attention to the efficiency and effectiveness of state agencies, universities will need to demonstrate that they also can accomplish their goals.

When Caret was President at Towson, one of his major accomplishments was eliminating the achievement gap between White and African American students at the campus.   Expect to see an emphasis on that objective throughout the University system.

A second goal is to maintain access and affordability for students.  Public universities in this country were created to provide opportunities for students of all economic circumstances.  State budget cuts over recent years have reduced the degree to which public institutions are a bargain, but they still compare favorably with the cost of private universities.  Maryland has made a sustained and successful effort during the past eight years to hold the line on tuition increases.

With continued tight budgets for the foreseeable future, one of Caret’s biggest challenges will be to persuade state policy makers of the importance of affordable tuition in the face of many competing priorities.

Third, Caret highlighted the importance of universities being responsive to the workforce needs of employers.  Two prominent examples are STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and cyber security.   Don’t be surprised if he identifies other fields of importance to the state’s economy.

Another broad area of focus for the new chancellor will be enhancing the ability of the university system to contribute directly to the economic vitality of Maryland.   Here, he is addressing the linkage between the research that is conducted at universities and its application to new economic ventures.  The most familiar phrases you hear are “technology transfer” and “business incubators”.

Nationally, many people are aware of this dynamic in Silicon Valley, Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, and the Route 128 Corridor in Massachusetts.  Creating a similar level of innovation and entrepreneurship has been much discussed in Maryland over the years, but with relatively little success thus far.  The President of the University of Maryland College Park, Wallace Loh, has made this an objective and will undoubtedly be pleased that Caret shares his commitment.

Caret’s fourth area of emphasis is the one that is critical to achieving success in the first three and is one in which he excelled in Massachusetts.  More than anything else, the job of the chancellor, who has no campus, athletic teams, faculty or students, is to tell the story for the system’s universities and to persuade state officials and other potential supporters of the importance of public higher education.

In his words, the question is: Why do we need high quality public higher education?  Caret pointed out that no one is interested in going to low quality institutions and that Maryland does not benefit from universities lacking quality.

One prerequisite to making that case is to demonstrate that public universities are spending the money from the state wisely.   In tough economic times, that’s even more of a challenge and even more important to accomplish.

Caret, who already knows many of the key decision makers in Maryland, sees his task as building trust with them and being able to explain a complex, billion dollar enterprise in terms that are understandable.  By all accounts, he was able to do that very effectively in his last job.

In fact, Caret was so well regarded in Massachusetts that it’s tempting to ask why he wanted to come back to Maryland.  He pointed out to me that the state has for a long time been going in the right direction with respect to public higher education.  Moreover, he sees himself very much in sync   with Brit Kirwan, the current chancellor, on most of the major issues facing higher education nationally.   The opportunity to build on that existing foundation was, in the end, irresistible.

In this column, I have tried to convey Caret’s thinking on the challenges ahead of him as he gets ready to return to Maryland.  What’s harder to express in writing is the incredible level of energy and enthusiasm he displayed in our talk.   You can count on him not merely to hit the ground running, but to be sprinting from the start.

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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.