He works 14-hour days, an 85-hour week, and keeps four secretaries busy in staggered shifts. Often he carries two briefcases, and a small calculator is attached to his watch. As he criss-crosses the state in a car, he dictates memos or confers with aides. And at age 58 he sometimes still runs down sidewalks or sprints into meeting rooms.
With relentless energy and often a salesman's enthusiasm, John S. Toll is pursuing the goal he set when he became president of the University of Maryland in 1978--to turn one of the nation's largest universities into one of "the top 10 public universities in the United States." But the task is proving difficult, and the results have been mixed.
Outside the university it has been a time of steep inflation, tight state spending, economic sluggishness and stiff competition for fewer potential students.
Inside there has been widespread criticism from faculty and administrators that Toll's energy is unchanneled and that the number and detail of the decisions he makes have created serious problems. On big issues, the critics say, Toll has been reluctant to make clear choices or to spell out a vision of what the University of Maryland should become.
Although some of his key administrators have resigned, Toll still has support from the people who hired him--the university's governing board of regents. As for the criticism, Toll says, "There will always be strains, particularly when you make efforts to improve things. That comes with the territory. You have to expect it. I'm not doing my job if I don't insist on high standards."
The range of Toll's attentions and enthusiasm remains broad--from entertaining the U.S. joint chiefs of staff to meeting with poultry farmers, from trying to lure Nobel Prize winners to join the faculty (unsuccessfully so far) to reading fat folders on faculty tenure and then, much more frequently than his predecessor, firmly overruling six or seven layers of committees and administrators.
"I think Johnny Toll has the right instincts, and he certainly has enough energy," said Carl Bode, an English professor. "The problem is that he disperses it too widely instead of focusing on what he should do. He wants to oversee too many things and that is why there has been so much friction."
Bode remembers Toll warmly from the time Toll was chairman of Maryland's physics department from 1953 to 1965, leading it to national renown and often spending the night in a sleeping bag on the office floor. Then he served for 13 years as president of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, building it from 1,500 students to 17,000.
Now Toll heads a university with four campuses, a hospital in Baltimore, large overseas and night programs, and about 80,000 students. He seems to be working with the same nonstop intensity as he always did, Bode says, "trying to do everything."
"He wants both size and quality," Bode continued. "He wants to build up the Eastern Shore campus and the Baltimore County campus and College Park.That might be possible if the resources were very great. But there are limits. This isn't the 1960s anymore. You have to focus on certain programs and certain things to do. But Johnny doesn't want to choose."
"The president isn't an either/or man," said one former aide. "It's always both/and. Sometimes that can seem helter-skelter."
The local chapter of the American Association of University Professors made a similar point in a recent report. President Toll "works long hours, motor racing and wheels spinning," it said, "but since the university is not in gear, it doesn't move."
The AAUP said the report was based on interviews with 50 leading professors and administrators. But Toll said its authors "went out of their way to pick highly negative comments.
"Yes, we are trying to do many things at once," he said, "but in fact they reinforce each other . . . I think we have the plan, and we are moving ahead . . . I just don't accept the idea that to be smaller is to be better. Our desire is not to decrease the size but to increase quality."
In many ways its size is the dominant fact about the University of Maryland, and the crux of Toll's problems and opportunities.
Last fall the university had 61,517 students on four campuses around the state plus about 19,000 on U.S. military bases in Europe and Asia. There were 3,201 full-time faculty members and administrators, and about 11,000 other employes. The budget totaled $543.8 million, of which $163.4 million came from state funds.
The main campus at College Park, which sprawls over 2 square miles, enrolled 37,528 students, including about 7,500 graduate students in 70 different fields. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, it is the seventh largest out of 3,253 college campuses in the United States, with far more students than any other in Maryland, Washington, or Virginia.
Bald, burly, and usually somewhat rumpled, Toll manages this conglomeration from a plain modern office set in a woods in Adelphi about a half-mile from College Park. Arrayed beneath him are six vice presidents, five campus chancellors, and about 150 vice chancellors, provosts, deans, and department chairmen.
"In a way it's too bad, but our management has more in common now with IBM than with dear old Mr. Chips," said George H. Callcott, a history professor who recently edited the memoirs of Wilson Elkins, Toll's predecessor and university president from 1954 to 1978. "A president now has an almost impossible job. He must please so many different constituencies--the state legislature, the regents, the students, the faculty, the public. And they all pull in different ways."
"Maryland wants its state university to be everything to everybody," Callcott said, "a research university and a popular institution, a place for Merit scholars and for C students, too. Of course, there is conflict in determining its role."
Although Toll often says he is trying to make Maryland one of the country's top 10 public universities, he has not closely defined what that group consists of or who would decide if Maryland has made it. He does, however, refer questioners to surveys of graduate programs in which the universities of California (at Berkeley), Wisconsin and Michigan have ranked high, along with prestigious private universities such as Harvard, Stanford, and Yale.
Except for the physics department that Toll built, Maryland has never ranked even in the top 20 in any of the major ratings, which depend heavily on the reputation of faculty members among other faculty in the same field.
"Maryland is just a terribly uneven place," said David Reisman, a Harvard sociologist who has written widely on American higher education. "It has some areas of real distinction and others that have a long, long way to come up . . . It's terribly difficult today to bring any place up, except in the Southwest, because the resources aren't available . . . And how can you get faculty to accept people much better than themselves?"
Toll said "the single most important ingredient in determining a university's excellence is the quality of the faculty."
Although he often talks about the importance of teaching and service, Toll has stressed research in making decisions on hiring faculty and giving them tenure, in effect lifetime jobs. His aides say he often calls up scholars around the country and reads books and monographs himself before making up his mind. In a magazine article Toll wrote: "An outstanding research professor is not just twice as valuable as an average college teacher; he or she is often 20 to 40 times more valuable."
His most controversial tenure decision was also Toll's first: the rejection of Bertell Ollman, a Marxist, as chairman of the government and politics department at College Park. But there was considerable support for that decision on campus.
Faculty members and administrators, in fact, have been far more critical of Toll for the relatively large number of tenure recommendations he has turned down--12 to 15 percent--and his efforts to recruit academic stars from outside the university. He has also drawn fire for the massive number of administrative decisions he personally has made instead of delegating them to others: appointing department chairmen, setting pay for administrators, giving more than one pay raise a year or extra pay for special projects.
Said one departing administrator: "There's no place for second fiddle in a one-man band."
Toll says he does try to delegate authority, and Peter O'Malley, chairman of the board of regents, strongly defends him. "John Toll is carrying out our policy, and he's demanding high standards of performance. If that's intrusiveness, God bless it."
But Lawrence Mintz, an associate professor of American studies who is starting a drive to unionize faculty, said he wondered whether Toll's "quest for excellence isn't at the expense of the existing faculty."
"It's not so clear that a national reputation and national rankings are what Maryland needs," Mintz said. "We're already a pretty damn good state university with a pretty damn good faculty. We're not going to be Harvard or Stanford or Oxford. I think Toll is on some Ahab-like quest for the white whale out there that's not good for students and not good for faculty. It's good for nothing else but more notches on his gun."
When Toll became Maryland's president four years ago, he already had considerable laurels. Before his years at Stony Brook and as Maryland's physics department chairman, he had graduated summa cum laude from Yale, done graduate work at Princeton with J. Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein, and spent time at Los Alamos working on the hydrogen bomb.
In the 1950s Toll was a prominent advocate of arms control as spokesman for the Federation of American Scientists. But in recent years, unlike some college presidents, he has kept strictly away from controversial public issues.
"He's brilliant, really brilliant," O'Malley says enthusiastically. "I only wish he would take some time for personal interests and enjoy his fine family some more."
Toll has two daughters, aged 7 and 9. He didn't get married until he was 46. "Johnny was too busy," said his wife, Deborah. "His work was his life. It still is. The children and I can go along." She said Toll comes home for dinner only two or three nights a week.
"And he doesn't have a single hobby," she added. "He jogs sometimes in the morning. On Sunday he spends time with the family. But sometimes he puts on his jogging suit and doesn't come back. Then Dacia age 9 calls the office and asks him to come home."
Toll said he sees few students except at meetings and receptions, but for the past three years several have lived in his house, mostly bright teen-agers admitted to the university while still high school age. He hasn't publicized this, Toll said, because the students "might get taunted for living with the president."
Toll said he has little time for reading outside the mass of papers and reports on university business. Although he dictates long memos, sometimes taking his dictation machine into the bathroom, aides say, Toll writes few articles or speeches.
Instead, most of his talks and legislative testimony are extemporaneous. They are heavy on facts and enthusiasm, often embellished with charts. Almost absent are theorizing, anecdotes, humor, or references to literature and history.
In some instances, however, key information Toll cites in support of his achievements at Maryland is erroneous or misleading. For example:
* A chart he distributed showing a 40-point increase since 1978 in combined average Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores of College Park freshmen was based on incomplete data. A final report, which Toll said he didn't know about, showed only a 10-point rise (to 513 in math and 457 in verbal last fall).
* The number of National Merit scholars entering the university quadrupled from seven in 1978 to 29 in 1980, as Toll says in many speeches. But last fall it fell back to 22, according to the National Merit Scholarship Corp., a point he said he didn't know.
* Toll says Maryland ranks among the top 25 universities in federal research funding. The rank is derived by adding together funds for the College Park and Baltimore campuses. Toll says that is done because he tries to "talk about the university as a totality." But the rank-order published by the National Science Foundation is for individual university campuses. On that chart, College Park ranked 46th in the country in 1980 and Baltimore 72nd.
Like many other faculty members, Robert Park, chairman of the physics department, believes Toll has helped raise academic standards, but overall, Park said, "I don't think he has moved us forward greatly. He probably kept us from falling behind. But it's not been a happy period. The resources just aren't there."
Others see some clear gains--upgrading of the Eastern Shore and Baltimore County campuses, a spurt in private fund-raising, and a continued rise in faculty quality.
Since Toll became president, state funding for the university, never generous in nationwide comparisons, has grown less than soaring inflation, although the Maryland legislature has voted a substantial catch-up increase for next fall. Faculty salaries remain relatively low--about $35,000 for professors last year. But Toll has won extra merit pay boosts that have pushed some top salaries up to about $60,000. (At $73,000, Toll's own salary is below average for universities of Maryland's size.)
"As a practical matter, making Maryland a first-rate university would probably take a decision by the legislature to spend a lot more money," said David Brenneman, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "There's no sign yet of a broad base of support for doing it."
Possibly another way to improve without massive spending would be to make the university "smaller and better," concentrating in some fields and discarding others, a course recommended by Malcolm Moos, the late president of the University of Minnesota, in a consultant's report last December. Brenneman said it would be much easier for Maryland to become "really excellent" if it concentrated on College Park, its leading campus, rather than trying to improve the other branches substantially.
But Toll has been unwilling to accept this advice.
"There has been progress and we should keep it going in all parts of the university," he said. "Sometimes our reputation hasn't caught up with our quality. But we have to keep moving."