Frank Schmidtlein, former University of Maryland College of Education department chair, died this April at age 88. Dr. Schmidtlein had significant experience working for state and federal education agencies before transitioning into academia, where he created a lasting legacy at the College by establishing a federal grant-funded center for research on higher education. Yet, colleagues say his most defining contribution is the kindness and encouragement he offered to students and faculty alike.
Dr. Schmidtlein had an unconventional path to higher education. He grew up on a cattle ranch in Nevada and attended a one-room schoolhouse taught by his mother.
“It was not an easy life, but together with his three sisters he had much freedom and many adventures that he loved to recall. His mother's influence led him to become an intellectually curious, lifelong learner and a champion of education for all,” according to his online obituary featured in The Press Democrat.
His family moved to Washington State during his childhood for better access to education, where he attended high school; shortly after his graduation, the converted chicken coop he lived in burned down.
“It’s interesting, because I never knew that until I read his obituary,” said Professor Marvin Titus. “He struck me as being a very humble, kind, caring and sensitive person and I think it had a lot to do with his background.”
Dr. Sharon Fries-Britt, Distinguished Scholar-Teacher, knew about his ranch days, but not of the more hardscrabble aspects of childhood.
“What it says to me about the person he was, it speaks of his humility,” said Dr. Fries-Britt. “He was such a compassionate person, who grew up in humble circumstances, learned about humanity, and was a person who got along with a wide range of folks.”
Dr. Schmidtlein earned his bachelor’s degree from Kansas State University in 1954, served in the Air Force, and then worked for the the U.S. Office of Education and the National Endowment for the Humanities. After completing his doctorate in higher education at the University of California, Berkeley in 1976, he moved to Maryland to work for the Maryland State Board of Education. He then joined the faculty of the University of Maryland College of Education, bringing with him an expertise in state and federal higher education policy.
“He was a really good advisor,” said Dr. Titus, who first met him through his job at the University System of Maryland, before becoming a doctoral student at COE and ultimately a faculty member and colleague of Dr. Schmidtlein. “He would call me at my job when I became a student, to ask me how I was doing and how classes were going, because I was working full-time and taking classes part-time.”
Dr. Titus also noted that, when he was still a doctoral student, Dr. Schmidtlein had invited him to the Association for the Study of Higher Education conference in San Antonio, where he introduced him to the leading scholars in the field.
Dr. Schmidtlein’s leadership skills and empathetic approach also came into play as chair of the department, particularly around administrative challenges that arose at the time.
“When he was chair, Frank was a great leader during the difficult conversations that were going on at the time,” said Dr. Fries Britt. “If he had to deliver bad news, or if he had conflict with a person, he had the capacity to give his feedback without denigrating the person.”
With a large federal grant, he started a center on higher education at the College. His research expertise was in government funding of higher education.
“Frank’s research was centered around financing from the government’s perspective and looked at implications for federal and state budgets. He looked at higher education financing from a different perspective than is what is commonly done—a more macro view—focusing on what effects it might have on the federal government and states’ budgets,” said Dr. Titus, who cited it as an influence on his own research.
After his retirement as an associate professor in 2001, Dr. Schmidtlein stayed engaged with the College, keeping in touch with students and helping to fund scholarships. He left a lasting legacy for the College both through his mentorship of students and faculty and his innovative research on higher education funding.
Photo caption: Frank Schmidtlein, University of Maryland, 1988; Photo by: Alfred Danegger; University of Maryland (College Park, Md.). Photo Services.