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President of Towson chosen to lead UMass

Selection ends long, contentious search

Robert Caret led two schools. Robert Caret led two schools.
By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / January 14, 2011

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The next president of the University of Massachusetts is a chemist and career academic with a track record of success leading colleges in Maryland and California, two of the nation’s top public university systems.

Robert Caret, president of Towson University, has achieved at the Maryland school what few college leaders have done: boosted the graduation rates of black and Hispanic students to the same level as their white classmates.

Caret, who was selected for the top post overseeing the state’s university system last night in a unanimous vote by the UMass Board of Trustees. He beat out finalists Phillip Clay, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology chancellor, and Charles Bantz, the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis chancellor.

“Caret comes from two systems we have always envied, California and Maryland,’’ said James Karam, a UMass trustee and chairman of the search committee, after trustees met with each finalist and deliberated for three hours behind closed doors. “His experience in those two great states will bring tremendous dividends to this institution.’’

Caret, a 63-year-old native New Englander, will succeed Jack M. Wilson as head of a five-campus university struggling to climb into the elite ranks of public universities while contending with multiple rounds of cuts in state funding.

Caret said his immediate priority is to persuade legislators and others in the state of the importance of having a strong, affordable public university as the state faces a fiscal crisis.

“You want to have a public option people choose to go to, and we have to put high quality into it,’’ Caret said in a press conference after his selection. “My role is to get public policy set up appropriately, get the resources our chancellors need, and get out of their way.’’

He promised to fight for funding and get UMass high on the legislative agenda.

Trustees said they expect Caret to provide outstanding leadership to UMass for at least five years.

Paul Reville, the state’s education secretary, said that although he strongly supported Clay’s candidacy because of his accomplishments at MIT, he “enthusiastically supports’’ the board’s choice because of Caret’s management experience.

“I was very impressed with all three of the finalists. They were quite different. . . . No one of them was perfect, but each was strong,’’ Reville said.

Caret, Reville later added, is the right leader to “move public education to its proper place’’ in Massachusetts and take UMass to the next level as the state confronts “unprecedented challenges in the economy.’’

“We are on the edge of a new era for the university,’’ Reville said.

Caret rose through the ranks of academia, serving as a professor and administrator at Towson University, a 21,000-student public university near Baltimore, for 21 years before leaving to become president of San Jose State University in California in 1995.

While at San Jose, he spearheaded an innovative partnership with the city and private industry to build the largest library west of the Mississippi, UMass officials said.

Caret returned to Towson in 2003 as president. The university was recently recognized by the Education Trust, a Washington think tank with a focus on racial achievement gaps, as one of just 11 colleges in the country whose graduation rates for under-represented minority students met or exceeded those of whites.

At Towson, 67 percent of white and black students and 70 percent of Hispanic students graduate — a rare feat in higher education.

According to a Washington Post story last month, Towson raised graduation rates of black students by 30 points and closed a 14-point gap between black and white students in the past decade.

Nationally, nearly two-thirds of colleges post graduation rates of less than 50 percent for black students. The Education Trust report found gaps of 15 points or more between white and Hispanic students at some public flagships, including UMass Amherst.

Caret also has a strong track record of diversifying the student body at Towson, which has been seen as a safety school for students unable to gain admission to the flagship University of Maryland in College Park, according to the Post.

Caret was able to nearly triple the number of black freshmen from Baltimore in one year by guaranteeing admission and scholarships to Baltimore high school students graduating in the top 10 percent of their class.

Born in the mill town of Biddeford, Maine, Caret was the first in his family to go to college. He received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry and mathematics from Suffolk University and taught high school for one year before going on to earn his doctorate in organic chemistry from the University of New Hampshire.

He is married to Elizabeth Zoltan, a former college administrator who works for a for-profit online K-12 education company. They have four grown children.

Caret’s selection culminates a 10-month search process during which committee members seriously considered 50 candidates and interviewed 14. That pool included nontraditional candidates in addition to academics, according to those familiar with the search. The committee also considered a number of women and minority candidates.

“I can assure you that diversity has been a paramount consideration,’’ Karam said.

The search appeared to hit a snag last month after former US representative Martin T. Meehan, chancellor of UMass Lowell, identified by some search committee members as an early favorite, dropped out after Governor Deval Patrick and his aides questioned the integrity of the search process.

The governor’s position and Meehan’s subsequent withdrawal prompted Robert Manning, chairman of the UMass trustees, to resign from the board.

“This process has not been easy, and there were moments that were very disturbing and distracting,’’ Karam said. “But the committee put the noise aside and in the end, focused on its job.’’

Caret’s candidacy was leaked early on in the search.

“I’m glad we got through the process. I don’t think I could handle much more,’’ Caret said as he shook hands with the chancellors of the university campuses. “I look forward to working with you.’’

Later, Caret told the board, “We have bigger challenges than we ever had in the past. I look forward to working with board, faculty, and students to put together a plan to really move the system forward.’’

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.