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Reinventing The University Of Baltimore
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A state-of-the-art law school building and an array of other new and recycled buildings is giving the University of Baltimore’s all-but hidden campus a vibrant new identity. The university’s president, Robert Bogomolny, recently took WYPR’s Fraser Smith on a walking tour of the campus.
Fraser Smith: When Robert Bogomolny arrived at the University of Baltimore seven years ago he found a remarkable closeness between faculty and student, but an institution that was all but invisible. What he could see was alarming.
Robert Bogomolny: Almost every facility was inadequate – to being rundown, to being unacceptable depending on where you are and where the facilities were.
Smith: Appearance matters, he thought.
Bogomolny: I don’t think the facilities reflected what was going on educationally. And, I think you owe students that.
Smith: Robert Embry, head of the Abell Foundation, says Bogomolny has made it possible for the university to begin meeting its obligations.
Robert Embry: The University of Baltimore is an untold success story. Even though thousands of people drive by it every day, very few people know what’s going on there or are even aware that it’s there.
Smith: In other cities, universities have been drivers of development, but not in Baltimore. Again, President Bogomolny.
Bogomolny: They used to say when I got here that this was the best kept secret in the university system of Maryland. I actually don’t like that language. I don’t think it’s a good thing to have a secret.
Smith: So, he began to re-invent the school and its image. First, he wanted a student center, a central point of reference – important for a commuter school where many students don’t live on the campus. A student center would give the campus a focal point.
Bogomolny: And, I felt that if we built the right kind of building, we would begin to help people have more awareness of the University of Baltimore. Smith: He wanted a building with a futuristic tone – lots of glass that would showcase student activity, ferment and community. A new glass-fronted building at the corner of Mt. Royal and Maryland Avenue was the first effort at a new identity. The new student center offered the first dramatic example of the power residing in the university’s secret status. It gave Bogomolny a certain license. The new student center, for example.
Bogomolny: The building was intended to be four stories but when I looked at it I said ‘We have to find a way to make it bigger.’
Smith: What was needed, he decided, was a fifth floor. So he ordered one. I asked him about his new found power during a recent walking tour of the campus.
Bogomolny: How does it feel to be the king? You know what I mean. I absolutely love it. You know I’ve had this long, checkered career being in universities and in business and in private law and public law. This is far and away the most interesting and most fun thing I’ve ever done because we serve so many people. It’s a mission that I really love. And most of the time when I decide we need to do something it happens. Not all the time, but most of the time.
Smith: But even a king needs resources. And Bogomolny knew the university had little hope of getting more money from a state beset with financial problems.
Bogomolny: You have a choice. You can be a victim and stay in the victim place or you can be someone who wants to take care of their own fate. We did that here. Smith: He and his team looked at their assets. They had some some unused athletic fields in Mt. Washington, a parking lot and a few buildings. He set about “monetizing” as much of it as he could. He leased the ball fields to the city as park land.
Bogomolny: The city agreed to upfront a significant part of those payments. And we migrated that money back to help us with the revitalization of our campus.
Smith: A new Barnes & Noble bookstore came along with The Fitzgerald, a private apartment development on university land down the hill from the Maryland Institute, College of Art. A taken-for-granted amenity elsewhere, the bookstore became part of the new campus identity.
Bogomolny: Again, it’s part of the philosophy. You want people to feel like they’re valued. We’re an urban university. We are unapologetic about that. We think that’s a great value… but we’re not a slum university. We’re a vital, energized place.
Smith: The university started to look like a catalyst. A new dormitory to be called The Varsity is about to open a block from the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Agon Insurance took over development of housing units on Charles Street. Streetscapes were accented with benches and trees and shrubs and flowers. Pocket parks came along. An old bank building with a spectacular barreled stairway was recycled. Talks were underway about closer relationships with the symphony and the Lyric Theater.
Bogomolny: And there was suddenly momentum. Smith: You can feel – and even see – the new energy. As Bogomolny led his new campus, trucks and buses and cars accelerated along North Charles Street.
Bogomolny: We brought in people who knew what trees would live in the city because we don’t know anything about that. … Eventually there will be benches so that people will have a place to hang out. As you know we’re a cement campus … So we’ve now humanized it.
Smith: Details were important. His development team convinced the city to use the university’s bricking pattern.
Embry: We’re trying to define boundaries to show where we begin and end.
Smith: The Abell Foundation’s Embry says Bogomolny’s willingness to push past various road blocks has resulted in a striking addition not only to the campus but to the city. The new law school building, Embry said, is both architecturally and environmentally distinguished. Again, President Bogomolny.
Bogomolny: We get alums who come back and can’t believe this is where they went to school because it’s so different.”
Smith: On the morning of the tour, graduating students in black gowns strolled along the Mt. Royal boulevard with their parents. A slumping bronze statue of Edgar Allan Poe across from the student center was given an impromptu red academic sash. It was as if someone said, “Hey Poe, loosen up! That “weak and weary” stuff is so yesterday.” Just like the old University of Baltimore.
I’m Fraser Smith, reporting from the University of Baltimore campus for 88-1, WYPR.
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