At University of Maryland, a $7.2 million president’s mansion demonstrates the wrong priorities

Petula Dvorak
Columnist January 9, 2012

Seriously, Maryland?

This move is so 1 percent.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Right after cutting their athletics programs and ending a six-year freeze by raising tuition, University of Maryland leaders are beginning construction on a $7.2 million president’s mansion while students are away on winter break.

That’s right, a 14,000-square-foot mansion.

What next? Harry Thomas-worthy luxury SUVs and trips to Pebble Beach for all the administrators? While we’re at it, let’s just change the campus paper – The Diamondback – to simply, The Diamond. (I can’t wait to see what the campus journalists are going to do with this debacle.)

It is disconcerting to see how tone-deaf our leaders can be when so many people are struggling to pay their bills.

University leaders told The Post’s Jenna Johnson that the University House, as the project is called, will pay huge dividends by helping raise more money for the school. There will be a 4,000-square-foot residence attached to a 10,000-square-foot entertainment facility, where wealthy donors will be wined, dined and separated from their cash.

Plus, the current presidential mansion is in disrepair and constantly needs work, they complained.

Whatever.

I’m surprised they also didn’t mention that contractors are coming so cheap in this economy, it’s the best time to think like Effie Trinket: “Big! Big! Big!” (It’s a Hunger Games thing. Ask your teen.)

It doesn’t matter that the president needs new digs, that lots of other universities have swank facilities or even that private donors paid for this mansion. It’s not coming out of tuition or public funds.

But it looks bad. So bad that the future occupant of the house, President Wallace D. Loh, who makes $450,000 a year, isn’t answering questions about it. Loh, by the way, is the guy who just announced that he’s cutting eight varsity sports teams to save an estimated $29 million over the next eight years.

A university has a responsibility for taking the high road in values and priorities. Sending the message that glamming yourself up to woo sugar daddies isn’t a righteous message. And as any Desperate Housewives star will tell you, it’s not always a successful ploy.

The same kind of thinking was at work in 2009 when Maryland built the $50 million Tyser Tower, an edifice to luxury sportswatching, where that elusive 1 percent would allegedly buy suites and lavish money upon the campus as they watched football.

Only, when it opened two years ago, just a fraction of the suites were sold, and games this season were sparsely attended.

Students are taking out loans and getting less for their dollar. Parents are cutting corners to send their kids to college. More luxury for highly paid administrators and wealthy donors is not the answer. Nor is killing off an 88-year-old track and field program.

The end of the track program means young men such as Craig Morgan, a miler who grew up in Maryland and for whom competing for the Terps is “a dream come true,” won’t have a team to run for his senior year.

“It’s devastating,” the 21-year-old junior told me. “If we raised, I think it’s $4.2 million dollars, we could save it. But how is that going to happen? It’s almost impossible.”

Sad, disheartening and cruel. But want to hear the stupidest part?

Maryland’s track coach, Andrew Valmon, had just been named the men’s coach for the U.S. Olympic track and field team, competing in London this summer.

You want to hear about something more impressive than a gleaming reception hall in the Maryland mansion’s blueprints? More impressive than its dedicated catering kitchen?

Hearing the University of Maryland’s name in the Olympics.

Instead, the world could get to hear about Valmon’s unemployment back home. Or, more likely, he’ll be at another university by then. Ouch.

I’d say that is more embarrassing than the threadbare carpet in the old mansion.

Terps, you riot like nobody’s business when you lose a basketball game. (Or when you win one, for that matter.)

Here’s a real reason to take to the streets. Don’t burn couches or overturn cars. Demand some answers.

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