John Toll, educator who led growth of colleges, dies at 87

Posted July 18, 2011, at 9:56 p.m.

John S. Toll, who died July 15 at 87, raised no fewer than three higher education institutions out of relative obscurity in a career that spanned several decades. He died of respiratory failure at Fox Hill Assisted Living in Bethesda, Md.

A physics prodigy from Chevy Chase, Md., Dr. Toll studied at Yale and Princeton and rose to be physics department chair at the University of Maryland at 29. The next half-century was a blur of restless energy and 14-hour days.

“Johnny was a heavy lifter,” said Deborah Taintor Toll, his wife of 40 years.

Toll went to New York in 1965 as the founding president of the institution now known as Stony Brook University. In 13 years, he built it from a meager campus of 1,500 students into a coveted destination within the State University of New York system.

Then he returned to U-Md. in 1978 as president of a five-campus system. He spent the next decade working to raise Maryland’s public flagship off the B list of state universities. At the time, the College Park campus had never been ranked in the top 20 by any significant college rater — with the exception of the physics department that Dr. Toll had built two decades before.

“He had this vision of building — this was the language he used — a top-10 university,” said William “Brit” Kirwan, a longtime colleague who now oversees the state university system. “He has to be credited as the person who raised the aspirations for what public higher education could be in Maryland.”

Toll oversaw the formation of Maryland’s 11-campus university system in 1988 and became its first chancellor, only to be driven out the next year amid allegations of micromanagement.

Toll worked on so many things at once and for such long hours that he sometimes required four secretaries. He often carried two briefcases. He was known for sprinting into meetings. He preferred to make every faculty-hiring decision himself.

He was known as a brilliant faculty recruiter. He wrote in a magazine article that “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 style had worked brilliantly at the Maryland physics department. It also worked well at Stony Brook, but not so well, critics said, at an 11-campus university system.

Toll reinvented himself at 71 as president of Washington College, a little-known liberal arts school of 850 students on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in dire financial straits. Many there assumed he was easing into retirement.

But his energy was scarcely diminished, and Toll took the job in Chestertown as an autumnal challenge.

“The lights would be on at his desk at midnight. He would be working that hard,” said Jay Griswold, who chaired the college’s board of visitors and governors during Toll’s tenure.

In a bold play to raise the school’s academic currency, Dr. Toll extended $10,000-a-year merit scholarships to any student who had been a member of the National Honor Society in high school. In two years, applications rose by two-fifths, and the mean grade-point average leapt from 3.0 to 3.3. Washington College was suddenly on the map.

“We know many students are using us as a backup when they apply to Harvard and Princeton,” he told The Washington Post in 2004. “That’s all right.”

Toll left the presidency at 80 after heart surgery. In 50 years, he had gone from one of the nation’s youngest department chairs to one of its oldest presidents.

Born on Oct. 25, 1923, in Denver, John Sampson Toll attended the college-preparatory Putney School in Vermont, and his family relocated to the Washington suburbs. He graduated from Yale with the highest honors, then served in the Navy during World War II and completed doctoral studies in the early 1950s at Princeton, where he helped found Project Matterhorn, a top-secret Cold War effort to control thermonuclear reactions.

Between university jobs in the early 1990s, Toll oversaw the enormous U.S. superconducting supercollider project until Congress defunded it.

In addition to his wife, of Bethesda, survivors include two daughters, Dacia Toll of New Haven, Conn., and Caroline Toll of Minneapolis; and a grandson.

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