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Ex-Mayor Schmoke looks to make UB an anchor of city

Kurt L. Schmoke is back in town.

A lot has changed since Baltimore’s former mayor left office 15 years ago, but Schmoke doesn’t shy away from change. In fact, as the new president of the University of Baltimore, Schmoke seems poised to usher in his fair share of it.

Case in point: In 2007, UB started enrolling freshmen and sophomores in addition to upper-level undergraduates and graduate students. At that point, Schmoke was about halfway through his tenure as law school dean at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He would go on to fill other positions there, and would later contemplate entering the public sector.

Instead, he returned to Charm City, assuming the helm of UB in July. And in an interview with The Daily Record earlier this month, Schmoke revealed he’s been exploring the possibility of doing away with UB’s fledgling four-year undergraduate program.

The news came as a complete shock to many faculty members, who said Schmoke had not yet approached them about the idea. Others said their new president had recently broached the topic with them but that they were taken aback by it.

Schmoke has other ideas, too. Some aren’t new concepts at UB; others are Schmoke originals.

In his interview with The Daily Record, he talked about community engagement, increasing enrollment and building on the momentum of his predecessors. Below is a condensed version of that discussion.

What about this position appealed to you?

At an event last year, three different people affiliated with the University of Baltimore approached me, and said, ‘Are you aware [former President Robert Bogomolny] is stepping down; would you be interested in the position?’ I had not thought about that. I was working hard at Howard University, enjoying it. I was going to go do public sector mediation work, and maybe teach. But I looked into the position and started reading more about the university, and I said, wow, there have really been significant changes since I’ve been out of the city. And the plans they had going forward really sounded quite exciting.

Was there anything about UB that immediately jumped out as needing attention?

I want to raise the visibility of the University of Baltimore. When it was first announced that I was selected as president, my friends at Howard said, where’s [University of Maryland, Baltimore County President] Freeman Hrabowski going? I mean, they thought it was UMBC. And other people said, ‘Oh, well, you have experience dealing with a hospital [at Howard], so you’ll be able to handle the challenges of a hospital [at the University of Maryland, Baltimore]. And I said, wait — time out, team, it’s not UMBC. It’s not UMB. It’s UB. So, clearly we need to do a little more on raising visibility and branding.

Another thing is that I really have a passion for encouraging young people to go to college, but in an affordable fashion. And what we offer — particularly for those interested in two years at community college and two years at our institution — is a really outstanding education at an affordable price.

I’ve also been spending time meeting with donors. I created a scholarship in my brother’s name as an attempt to lead by example and again, to keep the cost of college down.

Other than price, are there other ways UB should distinguish itself as “the city’s university”?

This is where I’m a little bit conflicted. As mayor, I was always proud that we had multiple great universities in the city, and I still think we do. I like Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s notion of “anchor institutions.” I see UB as one of those institutions. We can contribute in a lot of ways in terms of being “Baltimore’s university.” The Schaefer Center for Public Policy does a lot of good work. We train a lot of people in business, accounting, digital information, who will be either city residents or work in the city. We produce a significant number of people who will hold leadership positions here. But I don’t — I’m really a collaborative person. I’m looking for ways to collaborate with the community colleges and some of the area schools, like the Maryland Institute College of Art. My hope is that you’ll see a lot more collaboration among the universities. I’m very proud of the University of Baltimore, but I also know that Baltimore city benefits by having a number of great universities here.

We have a very different mission from [other universities named after their city]. I’d define it as liberal arts applied to career development. We are a career-oriented institution. If you’re going to have that kind of ambition for the institution like the University of Chicago, you either have to raise a huge endowment or you have to raise tuition to a level that would exclude so many of the people we really want to serve. So I’m comfortable with our mission and I don’t think we have to follow all the schools that happen to be named after great cities.

The Finish4Free program, which pledges to cover tuition for the final semester for students who graduate in four years, got a lot of national attention. What is your view on that program and do you plan to continue it?

Obviously it was a great idea. The question I’m looking at now is, did it move the needle [on graduation rates]? What is its actual impact? I really do want to see if it helped attract people and retain them. I’m looking at that now.

Enrollment at law schools nationwide has been lagging. There have also been concerns over whether schools are keeping up with changes in the profession. What should UB’s School of Law do to stay relevant for its students and keep enrollment high enough to sustain its programs?

We are slightly down in terms of applicants this year, but not as much as many other law schools. We have one of the highest first-time bar passage rates. We also have a lot of clinics. And employers want to know that not only can graduates read and write, but that they know where the courthouse is. And our students certainly know that. They’re involved in tough current policy issues, like our immigration clinic. They’re involved with children’s services, family law issues, criminal justice reform.

And not all of our graduates want to go to the big law firms where you’ve seen a lot of compression of employment. Many of them actually go into business, some into private practice, small firms, government service, clerkships. And some still hang out the shingle. So you see a range of employment by our graduates that keeps people coming to our law school.

I think applications are cyclical. I don’t think we’re going to get to a crisis level. They’ll be down for a while, but I think they’re going to go up again, particularly as baby boomers retire out of the profession. But we have to recognize that there are going to be a lot of changes in the law. We’ll see more reliance on paraprofessionals for a certain type of work that had been done by associates before. But we will adjust. I think our people are quite attuned to changes in the profession. And we’re going to continue full-time and part-time programs. A lot of law schools are debating getting rid of their part-time programs.

How much has enrollment decreased?

Five years ago, there were just under 1,000 law students. And now we’re just under 900. If that happened in one year, that would be, from a financial point of view, very significant. But we’ve also seen an increase in our graduate student enrollment. So the downturn in the law school is a challenge, but it hasn’t been devastating to our budget because we’ve seen increases in other areas.

What are your priorities for community engagement and expansion in the neighborhood?

We’re going to continue with some construction activity that I think will have a good economic development benefit. We’re going to renovate the university’s old Langsdale Library on Maryland Avenue. And we’re close to a deal with the U.S. Postal Service in acquiring a USPS vehicle maintenance garage [near Penn Station]. Our hope is to build a mixed-use development [on that site] that would have a primary purpose as a new health and wellness center for the neighborhood. The health center we have now, a lot of people pay to use that. We have nonstudents, neighborhood residents coming to group exercise classes. So if we’re able to get a modern, up-to-date health and wellness center, I think it’s going to be a great benefit, not just to our students and faculty but for the whole community.

ABOUT KURT L. SCHMOKE 

Age: 64

Education: B.A. in history from Yale University in 1971; Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University; Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School in 1976

Background: Baltimore City state’s attorney, 1982-1987; mayor of Baltimore, 1987-1999; partner at Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering; dean of Howard University School of Law, 2003-2012; general counsel, interim provost at Howard, 2012-2014

Family: wife, Dr. Patricia L. Schmoke; two adult children, Gregory and Katherine