UM president sees sobering future

November 23, 1990|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,Evening Sun Staff

COLLEGE PARK -- One year ago, optimism radiated from the main campus of the University of Maryland here. Plans were in full swing for the 134-year-old university to seek national eminence as a research institution. Top-rate faculty and students, like true believers, were signing up.

Then the dollars started to dwindle.

First came a 4 percent trim in the 1991 budget by state legislators last winter, followed by an unexpected 6 percent cost-containmentment directive from Gov. William Donald Schaefer in September.

Sources in Annapolis say a second wave of cost cuts is expected to be ordered from UM's current budget next month as Scaefer works toward erasing a state budget shortfall approaching $300 million.

The funding slowdown has caused administrators here to redesign some of the campus priorities by scaling back certain goals and deferring others.

President William E. Kirwan said he has ordered his 17 deans to make up a list of programs that could be eliminated from next fall's catologue, and provost J. Robert Dorfman is reviewing certain faculty contracts to see if they may yield further cost cuts.

During an interview in his office last week, Kirwan refused to specify which program or how many faculty positions would be affected. He said this fall's cost-containment cuts were achieved by a hiring freeze and cuts in purchases of supplies and equipment. He is apprehensive about future cuts but trying to prepare for them.

"If that turns out to be the case, it's something I'll have to deal with," Kirwan said. "The attitude is that we're going to use this period of time to do a very in-depth analysis of the institution and of our priorities. It means that we're going to to phase-down some programs that are worthwhile but are not truly at the heart of the institution and are not essential. We'll have to phase those down and reduce the staff and operating expenditures so we can retain the funding base."

Last month, Kirwan instructed his administrators to draw up two plans: best- and worst-case scenarios for 1992. Those proposals are due back to him by the end of the month.

"The worst case would be that there are further reductions this year and that these all get carried into the next fiscal year," he said. "The best case scenario is that we could of the cuts restored from this budget." Possible areas to scale back include some facilities renovation and some capital projects, Kirwan said. New buildings require people to work in and maintain which also adds to the operating expenses, he said.

Kirwan's 21-month tenureas president of UM at College Park has coincided with much of the massive state reorganization of higher education. While Maryland's higher education system has been prospering financing during the reorganization, its counterparts in other East Coast states already have been suffering budget cut as the nation's economy begins to slip into a recession.

The soft-spoken, 52-year-old president is a popular figure on campus partly because he rose through the ranks from a mathematics professorship to the president's office. His confident leadership has allowed the mood on campus to stall at a sober reading of the budget news, rather than plunge into panic.

"The fact is, there was a leak, rather than the plug was pulled," Kirwan observed. "We only lost some of money -- we had the best faculty and student recruiting last year that we ever had. To draw the conclusion that we have this deficit and this means that all the dreams and planning go out the window, I think is wrong.

"Nobody knows what the future holds over the next few years. If the worst happens and the nation's economy goes on a downward spiral, we'll see what happens. I think Maryland is very well positioned in higher education, compared to what is going on in other states. This thing is going to sweep across the country. We're not alone.

Kirwan acknowledged that he began his presidency "at a time of great hope and aspiration" for higher education in Maryland, and he said he still sees a strong state commitment to plans for reorganization and expanding UM's programs. "The mood is very sober and realistic, but it is also a very determined mood to maintain, perhaps at a slower pace, the momentum of this campus to protect our priorities," he said.

"If we were at the beginning phases of a multi-year decline, then it would be difficult to maintain, morale," he added. "We might be, but that's not at all clear at the moment. I'm a quantitative-oriented person, so trying to juggle numbers and make resources available to meet need, well, I have training on the side of the brain that deals with those issues."

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