The University of Baltimore on Wednesday named former mayor Kurt L. Schmoke its next president, marking the return of a pivotal figure in the city's political history and someone boosters hope will strengthen the institution and its neighborhood.
Schmoke, who has held several roles at Howard University, including law school dean, said he hoped to "build on the momentum" of Robert L. Bogomolny, who announced last fall he would retire as president at the end of the academic year. Schmoke will take over the job in July.
Schmoke said he would focus on fundraising from private donors to offset slower growth in state funding while holding down tuition increases. He also said he wants to continue to spur economic growth around the university's Mid-Town Belvedere neighborhood.
"Keeping education at University of Baltimore accessible to people at an affordable price is a huge challenge," Schmoke said. "So I expect to spend a great deal of my time on fundraising, mostly in the private sector, because I don't think that state funding is going to grow dramatically for higher education over the next decade."
Schmoke, who grew up in Baltimore and attended Baltimore City College, received an undergraduate degree in history from Yale University and was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. He earned a Juris Doctor degree from Harvard Law School.
Schmoke became the first elected black mayor of Baltimore in 1987, pushing for adult literacy — coining Baltimore as "The City That Reads" — and cracking down on crime before he decided he would not seek a fourth term in 1999.
Schmoke, 64, also led a successful campaign to win more state funding for Baltimore's public schools and is known for his support for decriminalizing illicit drugs. He returned to a private law practice after serving as mayor before joining Howard University in 2003. He currently serves as interim provost and general counsel at Howard.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she was "very excited" about Schmoke's appointment and thought it "speaks to where they want to position themselves in the future with someone who has very strong academic credentials as well as very strong ties to the city."
"We have been working very closely with our meds and eds — our medical institutions and educational institutions — to develop a strategy that allows us to work in concert, so all of their plans for growth and expansion and all of our plans for neighborhood development and things like that are aligned and the universities can see themselves as they are — as anchors," Rawlings-Blake said.
The University of Baltimore has embarked on an expansion, building a law center that opened last year and working with private developers on new housing and other projects. Schmoke said to expect "a lot of good things occurring in the development area."
The university, founded as an evening business and law school in 1925, has educated well-known alumni including Baltimore Orioles majority owner Peter G. Angelos, Maryland first lady Catherine "Katie" Curran O'Malley, former Gov. William Donald Schaefer, and several local and state elected officials.
The university now has four colleges: the College of Public Affairs, the Merrick School of Business, the School of Law and the Yale Gordon College of Arts and Sciences.
Bogomolny, UB's current president, led efforts to revive the four-year undergraduate program and to transform the campus and surrounding neighborhood. The college, which previously taught only juniors and seniors at the undergraduate level, expanded in 2007 to a full four-year school. As of fall 2013, the university enrolled about 6,500 students, and the age of its average undergraduate was 28.
Tuition and fees for in-state undergraduates has risen 3 percent annually in the past couple of years — the same as other institutions in the university system — to more than $4,000 a semester.
The university's endowment also has grown in recent years to more than $40 million.
Many UB students are the first in their families to attend college. The university has struggled with its four-year graduation rate, which is 8 percent for first-time, full-time freshmen, the second-lowest in the state university system. The university drew national attention in March when it announced that it would offer a free semester of tuition to students who were on track to graduate in four years.
University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. Kirwan, who on Tuesday announced he would step down once his successor is found, said Howard University administrators told him Schmoke was a "rock" that held the campus together through recent hard times. Officials said Schmoke focused on increasing bar exam passing rates at Howard and on building new residential halls and boosting undergraduate enrollment.
"All higher ed has the challenges of a changing environment," said Bogomolny, citing student demographics and public funding as examples. The University of Baltimore, he said "is on course, so the question is, what's next?"
Schmoke, who will earn an annual salary of $300,000, about the same as Bogomolny, said the university has had the "momentum to really have a huge impact on higher education in the state and the city."
As Schmoke stepped forward to be introduced to the campus community Wednesday morning at the college's student center, he was greeted by a standing ovation. During a reception afterward, dozens lined up to shake his hand, with some reminiscing about his time as mayor or encouraging him to attend the next Student Government Association meeting.
"He's somebody that seems to embrace the unexpected, he's an inclusive leader, and I really get a sense that he's going to be a transformative leader for our university," said Steven D. Cohen, an assistant professor of communication. "What I'm excited to see is that jolt of energy.
"I think he's going to continue to raise us up and put us on the map. I want the University of Baltimore not just to be a hometown university but to be a university in our state that's a tremendous source of pride."
Jasmine Gibson, a Student Government Association member from Baltimore, said students are looking forward to working with Schmoke on their priorities, which include affordable housing.
"Right now he's just looking perfect for us," said Gibson, a 20-year-old sophomore studying digital communications. "Everything we've seen from Howard, and him being mayor here, we're just grateful to have him."
Ronald Weich, dean of the UB School of Law, said he thought Schmoke would be well-equipped to handle other higher education challenges like a shift toward online learning and ensuring that enrollment remains strong.
"Kurt Schmoke is someone with the ideal set of credentials for this job," Weich said. "He knows every corner of Baltimore, he has vast experience in higher education, and he has excellent judgment and interpersonal skills. I think it's a mark of how important this university is in Baltimore that the former mayor would come to be our president. We play a central role in this community, and he will make that role even more prominent."
Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this report.
1976-1977: Attorney with the Piper and Marbury Law Firm (also in 1981-1982)
1977-1978: Assistant director of the White House Domestic Policy Staff
1978-1981: Assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Maryland
1982-1987: State's attorney for Baltimore City
1987-1999: Mayor of Baltimore
1999-2003: Partner in law firm of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering in Washington, D.C.