COLLEGE PARK -- Ever since its founding in 1859, the University of Maryland College Park has withstood challenges to its legitimacy, from a General Assembly plan to dissolve it in the 1920s to attempts by Baltimore businessmen to carve away whole schools of journalism and architecture in the 1980s.
Now, just three years after the campus legally secured its status as the flagship campus of a new state university system, faculty members say they may be up against the most serious challenge: the potential raid of dozens of faculty conducting research in agriculture, environmental problems in the Chesapeake Bay, pest management, animal sciences and pollution of ground water.
In the past week, more than 100 faculty have mobilized to stop what some are calling a "Machiavellian plot" to wrest control of agriculture-related research from the state's main campus and put it in a separate institute with its own president.
The conflict began with a surprise move last week by the chancellor of the state university system, Donald N. Langenberg, to have the University of Maryland Board of Regents approve what he called two "modest" changes. He billed them as the first step in solving a bureaucratic quagmire that many agree has hurt the quality of the university's College of Agriculture and its ability to address Maryland's agricultural and environmental needs.
But according to senior faculty members, the modest changes, coupled with designs on the drawing board for a new research building in Greenbelt, could ultimately draw millions of dollars in research grants and faculty members away from the campus and devastate undergraduate programs in the colleges of agriculture and life sciences.
"Many of the departments will go under," predicted Sandra J. Greer, who chairs the chemistry department and who condemned the move as lacking educational sense. "It's absolutely amazing."
At stake, according to interviews with the leaders of a dozen affected departments, are up to $25 million in resources, including 110 faculty members; undergraduate education in such fields as botany, entomology and animal science; and the ability of academics to set their own research priorities.
College Park President William E. Kirwan learned of the plan from the chancellor eight days ago, only hours before the chancellor was to ask university regents for approval. Stunned, Dr. Kirwan also went to the regents that afternoon. He asked for and received 30 days to show why control of agricultural research should remain on campus.
The next day, more than 300 faculty members showed up at a meeting at the central administration building in Adelphi called by the chancellor discuss his plans, a turnout that took the chancellor by surprise.
"What I have actually done is so minimal it hardly bears notice," Dr. Langenberg said, adding that he planned no other changes -- "absolutely nothing" -- and wanted to see a strong agricultural college at College Park.
Specifically, he proposed to regroup the Agricultural Experiment Station, a research unit of mostly College Park faculty, and the Cooperative Extension Service, a consumer-oriented agency with field offices throughout the state, under a new identity -- the Maryland Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
This institute would fall under the aegis of the vice chancellor for agriculture, Raymond J. Miller, whose title would be changed to president.
In effect, more than 100 faculty who hold dual appointments at College Park and the experiment station or extension service would report to him. Now, research and funding priorities are negotiated by all three parties, and faculty members report to their dean.
According to the faculty, the new arrangement would allow the institute to withdraw its share of College Park faculty salaries and deploy the money elsewhere around the state.
Faculty members fear the money could go to a new research institute apparently being planned by the Agricultural Experiment Station. The institute would be housed in a new $20 million building central administration officials said this week would be financed by the recent sale of university farmland.
"Even if it is not a financial crisis, it is an educational crisis," said Nancy E. Bockstael, an agricultural economist, who said students would suffer if the new institute withdrew its support from faculty or if professors were transferred from campus.
Paul H. Mazzocchi, dean of the colleges of agriculture and life sciences, said that a transfer of resources to the institute would "severely damage all the programs at College Park."