Deborah Wiltrout or the Reason Why I Almost Transferred to UMD


Eighteen-year-old me, replete with unsurpassed enthusiasm. (Author Photo)

The Maryland animal kingdom is a bit unsettling to the uninitiated.

There are the swarm of cicada: Giant, noise-making locusts that occupy the Mid-Atlantic in 17-year broods. Like the eighth plague of Egypt they shroud the sky, devour crops, and create commotion so deaf-defying that it gives new meaning to the expression “misery in the head.”

Then there is the Chesapeake blue crab: The official state food of Marylanders. Steamed, sautéed, caked, souped, and salad-ed, the crustacean is so much a celebrity as it is a commonplace delicacy. There is even a festival devoted to the crab. (Correction: There are three such festivals devoted to the crab; countless others devoted to seafood.)

In complete retrospect, it’s no wonder that Maryland wasn’t for me. However, barring my insecure and completely irrational fear of not knowing proper mallet technique, I was absolutely convinced it was where I belonged. Thanks to one not-so-tiny terrapin.

But first, it is at this point that I should disclose my past obsession with the University of Maryland—a culmination of required tick marks that would beg my seemingly impending relocation. For one, the university had a historically strong journalism program. As I had originally been snubbed by chart-topping Syracuse (Northwestern was an impossibility), I still pined for big name recognition and an expanse network of industry-connected alumni (something I was unsure my alma mater could provide). Two, and as an extension of this first criterion, the proximity of the College Park campus to the nation’s capital meant possible opportunities with phenomenal news media such as NPR, The Baltimore Sun, and The Washington Post. And three, while Boston was my native home, I longed for a traditional campus—a quad where I could study or play Frisbee, a unifying sports culture that exuded spirit and deep emotional attachment. Overall, it seemed like the perfect fit.

The University of Maryland, College Park is considered one of the nation's esteemed "public ivies," due, in large part, to the work of Deborah Wiltrout.

The University of Maryland, College Park is considered one of the nation’s esteemed “public ivies,” due, in large part, to the work of Deborah Wiltrout.

Testudo, Maryland’s mascot, was synonymous with my concept of greatness. A couple of years earlier, the men’s basketball team had won the NCAA Division I national championship. And while it was from this recent athletic success that the “Fear the Turtle” slogan was born, it wasn’t until Deborah Wiltrout, Executive Director of Marketing at the University of Maryland, adapted this platform university-wide that the institution gained the notoriety and national recognition it so deserved.

In short, Wiltrout was able to leverage the same sense of physical prowess to market the university’s academic achievements. Those characteristics of determination and grit were not confined solely to athletes. Indeed, Wiltrout realized that they applied as equally well to the competitive nature of the much larger student body.

“Fear the Turle” became the definition of a campus. It was a bold and rather unorthodox approach that conveyed the total confidence of a school. Testudo himself became larger than life. More than the foundation of the university’s athletic identity, the terrapin helped even the scholarly playing field among the nation’s elite public universities. He became the embodiment of selective admissions standards in an era when the value of a private education was under questioning.


2 thoughts on “Deborah Wiltrout or the Reason Why I Almost Transferred to UMD

  1. You certainly look unenthusiastic in that picture David. So, terrapins are not precisely your speed, how about razorbacks or yellowjackets? I have never heard Maryland summarized as eloquently as you shared with us. I actually have a few friends that graduated from the University of Maryland, they all seem to have adapted well. I think the “Fear the Turtle” slogan was a stroke of genius! I remember watching basketball games that Maryland played and seeing it, which allowed it to stick in my memory. Ultimately ‘top of mind’ awareness is what marketing gurus strive for , thus I would consider them successful in that regard.
    Would you do an elevator pitch for the University of Maryland?

  2. It appears that Maryland’s loss was Boston’s gain, David! To be honest, I was aware of UMD from their athletic reknown, primarily their basketball program. Your insight into the amazing brand exercise carried on by Ms. Wiltrout was very interesting. I can only assume that it wasn’t an easy task, given the sometimes adversarial nature that exists between academic and athletic interests at the collegiate level.

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