The Man With the Plan: President Bogomolny’s UB Legacy
There was no plan, but there were plans. When Robert L. Bogomolny, 76, stepped onto the University of Baltimore campus as its seventh president in August 2002, he didn’t do so with blueprints for his tenure rolled neatly under his arm.
“When I looked at the job at UB, I had the sense that there were a number of things that needed to be done,” he says. “There were changes in infrastructure, changes in management and leadership styles, different kinds of activities that needed to be pursued, but I didn’t have a precise idea of what they were. ... I felt there was an opportunity to engage in change.”
Along the way, plans developed. A new UB emerged and surprised people—not the least of whom was the president himself—about just how much it could change.
When Bogomolny arrived, he discovered an institution “where the kinds of things that were happening ... had real value,” he says, but he also saw extraordinary opportunity: programs to be expanded, money to be raised, a campus footprint to define and an identity to develop. Even an entire city eager to be anchored by its namesake university.
But these initiatives unrolled slowly, over time, and Bogomolny addressed them as urgencies arose. “I’m not the kind of person who writes down a five-year plan,” he adds. “I’m just not that person. All of this was kind of evolutionary.”
And one of the first opportunities to pop up was the creation of the UB Student Center, which Bogomolny calls a “wonderful and interesting challenge.” He says the decision was easy: The University needed a student-oriented space, no two ways about it.
Getting there was more difficult. Facing public pressure to salvage the Odorite building at the corner of Mount Royal and Maryland avenues—the subject of a long-standing impasse between historic preservationists and the University—Bogomolny committed himself to the course of action that would best serve UB students. The student center opened on the site of the former Odorite building in early 2006, after three years of negotiation and construction.
“[The process] enabled me to build a team around solving a problem, which involved public pressure, newspaper pressure, and University needs and community issues,” Bogomolny recalls. “By ultimately being successful with that, I think it was a statement that the University of Baltimore couldn’t settle [for less].”
And it never settled again. Even when architects informed Bogomolny that funds had run out and there could be no fifth floor to the center, he stood his ground. “I simply said, ‘We’re not going to do that.’ This is a good place with good people, and we’re going to do the best. We shouldn’t [settle for] the least.”
Perhaps the culture change began to manifest itself earlier, but the battle for the UB Student Center was the first real testament to the tenacity of the University community during Bogomolny’s administration. He sees his role as “helping to unleash a very large group of excellent people here who needed to feel like we were actually going to do things, that we were going to change, that we could expand our vision—that we could, in fact, be ready to take on different kinds of challenges.
“ ... every time we do a new project or a new initiative, that’s the most fun thing I’m doing.”
Beyond providing a long-awaited space dedicated to students—where they can study, relax, gather and take advantage of events and cultural opportunities—the student center set the ball rolling on something else: It began to define the UB campus and, in turn, the heart of the city. “I insisted that the building be a statement building,” Bogomolny says. “If you knew the number of people who drove down Maryland Avenue every day and didn’t even know the University was there ... the presence of the student center began to change that.”
Every other capital project since then—from the renovation of the Liberal Arts and Policy Building at Charles and Preston streets to the streetscaping throughout campus to the construction of the new John and Frances Angelos Law Center—has supported that goal. And for Bogomolny, each one has been enjoyable.
“At some level, I live in those projects that we’re building rather than those projects that we’ve built,” he says. “So every time we do a new project or a new initiative, that’s the most fun thing I’m doing. ... Changing the whole atmosphere of the school has been great fun. But [so has] helping people understand that aspirations can be met.”
And the fun hasn’t been limited to bricks and mortar. During Bogomolny’s 12 years at UB, the student and faculty headcounts have both increased by nearly one-third. The student body includes growing freshman and sophomore populations after the reintroduction of four-year undergraduate education in 2007, kicking off with the bang of free first-year tuition for the inaugural freshman class. Bogomolny has led a charge to expand academic offerings, resulting in 31 new programs, an initiative he says was meant “to change the way people were thinking about what was happening here.” And just in the past year, he has spearheaded a comprehensive refocusing of institutional efforts surrounding student success. Most recently, the debut of UB’s Finish4Free option—which covers the last semester’s tuition for incoming freshmen who finish in four years—has gained national attention for its goal of reducing student debt while increasing four-year graduation rates.
And this barely brushes the surface of the significant, community-altering changes that have defined the past decade-plus: public-private partnerships that have symbiotically benefited both the University and the city, bringing a bustle to midtown Baltimore—UB Midtown—that never existed before; an overall greening of campus, resulting in a 35 percent reduction of the University’s carbon footprint; and a subtle but growing shift away from commuter-campus status, as approximately one in six students can now walk to campus.
“ ... if I had set goals, they would’ve been much more modest. And as a result of that, we haven’t limited ourselves.”
Bogomolny seems to brush it off. “When I got to know what it was like around here and got a little support, I figured we could do it,” he says. “You don’t start these initiatives unless you feel you can succeed with them.”
But Bogomolny’s biggest surprise, he says, isn’t how much has been accomplished during his tenure but how much he loves the University—and “how much fun this job has been. ... I’m a different president now than I was in 2002.”
And perhaps the personal changes are more profound than those he worked so hard to plan in his professional life. Since taking the helm at UB, Bogomolny has become a fan of both the Ravens and Orioles (“much to my surprise,” the Cleveland, Ohio, native says); has come to appreciate how easy it is to live in Baltimore, which he likens to his hometown; and has become an avid spinner, as in the exercise you do on a stationary bike. Because of this workout routine, he’s even expanded his musical tastes to include reggae. And the January commencement ceremony marked his first graduation “selfie” thanks to a student who, while crossing the stage, pulled out his cell phone and caught Bogomolny and himself in a self-portrait.
In 2008, he married Janice Toran, whom he’d known for years. His marriage has been one of the driving forces behind his retirement, announced in September. “When my wife and I got married five-plus years ago, we had talked about my finishing up here and ... having the next chapters of our life with a lot more freedom to spend pursuing interests together,” he says.
In the meantime, they’ve filled their lives with music—Toran playing piano and ukulele and Bogomolny recently trying his hand at the notoriously challenging classical guitar. “It would’ve been better to be doing this at 13 than at my age,” Bogomolny quips. “But I’m really loving it, and I intend to keep doing it. My wife got me a new guitar for my 75th birthday. It’s a great instrument.”
They also enjoy spending time in Lenox, Massachusetts, where they have a house and can take advantage of the music, theater and dance that characterize the Berkshire region. It’s the summer home of the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival and of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. (Bogomolny is a committed supporter of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as well.) “And as it turns out,” Bogomolny says, “I like small towns. I like being able to walk to the restaurants and the markets, and I like walking into a store and being recognized as a resident; there’s a certain friendliness about it that’s different than it is in cities.”
As the man who has so embraced and engendered change on the UB campus prepares for what might be the biggest change of his personal and professional life, he reflects on the “rapid transformation” that The Baltimore Sun cited in a Sept. 4 editorial: “UB is no longer a sleepy commuter campus with a fourth-tier law school but a dynamic institution that plays an integral role in the state’s effort to train a 21st-century workforce.”
“I envisioned I could do something to make the place better,” Bogomolny says. “I never had an idea that we could do so much transformational stuff. If you had asked me, could I come in and transform the University, I would’ve thought that would be a very arrogant thing to say yes to. I would’ve said, ‘I can come in and try to make it better.’
“And we’re so much beyond trying to make it better,” he adds. “In 2002, I had no ability to understand how much we could do over these 12 years. And in a way, it was good. Because if I had set goals, they would’ve been much more modest. And as a result of that, we haven’t limited ourselves.”
So he’s confident that he’s leaving the University in good shape for incoming president Kurt L. Schmoke, who takes the helm in early July.
“It wasn’t so much that I didn’t think there wasn’t another several years of work to do, because I can tell you what I’d do for the next five years if anybody cared [to hear it],” he says. “And No. 1 on that list would be student success. But it seemed to me that we had reached a point where a lot had been accomplished and it was a good moment, because the University is healthy, it’s thriving. We’re turning over a strong institution to the next president, and it is a good moment to step aside.”