The Vision of a Great University Slips Away

February 25, 1991|By TIM BAKER

The bright promise of a truly great University of Maryland is slowly sliding away from us.

The state's deepening budget crisis now threatens much of the progress the system has achieved since the heady days of reorganization and huge budget surpluses in 1988. In fact, each new round of budget cuts pushes higher education in Maryland back toward the pervasive mediocrity from which we aspire to escape.

The hammer blows of a deepening recession and falling tax revenues have forced Governor Schaefer to impose substantial reductions on higher-education funds. Since last August, the University of Maryland's budget has been reduced by a total of $53 million for this year. Those reductions have been extended into the base budget for next year, along with an additional $11 million in cuts.

The net loss of $64 million has entirely eroded the glorious budget increases with which the governor and the General Assembly enhanced the system between 1988 and 1990 -- the largest percentage increases in the nation during that period. Even under the governor's current budget the system would receive 8.2 percent less in fiscal 1992 than in fiscal 1990.

Those cuts represent a 20-25 percent reduction after adjustment for inflation. In real terms, our annual investment in higher education has sunk back to the 1987 level -- at which, everyone agreed, we'd never get anywhere. Now more cuts will be required by the further decline in state tax receipts which will be announced today.

Since the first budget cuts were imposed last August, campus presidents and administrators have tightened their belts and tried to handle these cuts without long-term damage to their institutions. They have deferred maintenance, put off repairs, postponed new purchases and left faculty and staff positions unfilled. By now they have used up their capacity to absorb additional reductions.

The cuts have already begun to bite. In order to make up lost appropriations, the College Park campus has called off the fourth installment of its five-year plan to reduce undergraduate enrollment by 7,200 students, a key component of its promising enhancement strategy.

The most serious losses come in faculty -- the ''seed corn'' for the future. The crisis has forced every campus to leave vacant positions unfilled. Towson State has not filled 24 of 28 empty faculty slots. Colleges and universities in other states have begun to recruit the best of our young and mobile professors.

Most ominously, the university system's $100 million annual capital budget is now in danger. Under arrangements agreed to in 1988, $40 million a year of revenue bonds which are backed by the system's tuition collections have been serviced every year out of budgeted general-fund appropriations.

Next year's budget, however, excludes the $4 million necessary to fund that expense. Unless another way can be found to pay for those bonds, the system's capital program will be reduced by 40 percent to $60 million a year, a $200 million loss over the next five years. Reductions of that order would threaten important long-planned projects like the medical research buildings for UMAB, the new Maverick business-school building at the University of Baltimore and the UMBC library.

The state's revenue losses and the resulting budget cuts leave the Board of Regents with no easy options. They will soon have to decide important policy questions:

Will the budget cuts continue to be passed proportionately across the entire system? Or will they be imposed selectively so that some programs are sacrificed while more important ones are preserved? Which institutions should be given preference? What strategic priorities should govern those choices? How can we sustain College Park's impressive momentum toward the first rank of America's public research universities? How can we ultimately achieve the vision of UMBC as Maryland's comprehensive technology institute?

This process may produce some startling changes in the shape, structure and missions of different institutions. The shortage of money will not support the ambitions of every component in the system. The regents' goal in these difficult times should be to husband and protect those centers of excellence upon which the system can build when this crisis has passed and more money becomes available.

In Maryland we do not have the long and deep traditions of excellence in higher education which sustain a University of Michigan or a University of Virginia during tough times. We had just started to reach toward that kind of attitude about our universities when this budget crisis hit.

The regents must become active and even zealous advocates for a great University of Maryland. They have not played that role effectively so far. Their voice has too often sounded muted. They must now begin to forge and articulate clear and persuasive goals and priorities to guide the system.

It is critical that administrators, professors, legislators and taxpayers know where the system is headed and how it's going to get there. The regents must proclaim a compelling vision of what the University of Maryland aspires to become and the crucial role that it will play as our state tries to build a secure and prosperous future in a knowledge-based world economy.

Tim Baker is an attorney.

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