New UM chief finding feet after rocky start

June 09, 1991|By Patricia Meisol

Less than a year into his $175,000 job as chief executive of the state's 11-campus university system, Donald N. Langenberg has yet to have his honeymoon.

The chancellor has alienated the governor and has been publicly dressed down by a key state Senate committee. He blindsided leaders of the state's flagship campus in a way that lost their trust.

"He got off on the wrong foot," said Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who until last week hadn't spoken to Dr. Langenberg since last fall.

In an interview last week, Governor Schaefer said that while the new university system is working more smoothly, the new chancellor has a lot to learn about how to get along with the legislature, college presidents and regents.

Will he last? "I don't know," the governor said. "He's brand new, and we've got to give him time."

Nearly everyone agrees that the wry physicist from Illinois has had a tough first year in a tough job.

The 59-year-old chancellor came with a mandate to shape the character of a new state university system and establish priorities in a $1 billion-plus budget. He was greeted with a flood of good will after the turbulent tenure of John S. Toll, but suddenly things began to go wrong.

By fall, he had angered the governor with remarks over a budget shortfall that Mr. Schaefer took to be less than appreciative of the state's investment in higher education.

Then, Dr. Langenberg insulted members of a Senate Budget and Taxation subcommittee by reading to them from a lengthy tract and failing to satisfy their questions. Lawmakers told him that if they wanted someone to read to them, they could find someone cheaper. "He expected to sweet talk B&T, but B&T was having no part," said Sen. Julian L. Lapides, D-Baltimore.

Last month, in a face-off with College Park over the future of the College of Agriculture, Dr. Langenberg proposed a new institute for agriculture research and cooperative extension programs. He called it a mere name change, but it cemented the control of the two units in his central administration and, according to College Park -- which wants the units back on campus -- has negative implications for undergraduate education.

Beyond questioning the academic merits, the faculty at College Park objected strenuously to the way the chancellor handled the proposal, notifying the campus President William E. Kirwan only a day before bringing it to University of Maryland System regents. They smelled a hidden agenda.

"If it is merely a cosmetic name change, why waste the regents' time?" asked Jacob K. Goldhaber, dean of graduate studies and research at College Park. He called the chancellor's methods "devious" and the regents' decision a "shameful rush to judgment" on a complicated issue that has been discussed for 10 years.

"What I like to see in a chancellor is somebody with a basic set of beliefs," Dr. Goldhaber said. "I don't know what his set of axioms are."

The agriculture debate, as well as a perception that the new chancellor has not made a commitment to College Park as the flagship, has set off bells, said Bruce R. Fretz, professor of psychology and chairman of the College Park campus Senate. "He has certainly created an atmosphere in which there is a lack of trust," the professor said.

Critics say the chancellor is either not getting good advice or not taking it, has yet to learn how to stroke his constituency and is hard to read.

"I'd hate to play poker with him," said the state secretary for higher education, Shaila R. Aery, who worked as a blackjack dealer for a time after college.

The result is uncertainty that the chancellor will be able to set priorities and avoid the leveling effect that has plagued higher education in Maryland for years. The goal is even more critical because of a recession that has seen promised state funding cut and a university budget that has reverted to 1987 levels without a corresponding drop in expectations for higher education.

This spring, after the chancellor opted to spread another round of budget cuts across the board, law

makers privately discussed whether hardest-hit College Park would be better off quitting the new system. Unhappiness with university spending also led some lawmakers to wonder whether a hands-on approach to the now autonomous university budget might be needed.

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, D-Baltimore, chairwoman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees the higher education budget, said that the chancellor has made some tactical mistakes from inexperience in dealing with UM campuses, particularly College Park, and that they need to be fixed.

"If you are the president of the flagship, you are entitled to have a good relationship with the chancellor," she said. "And it is in the chancellor's interest to have a good relationship with the flagship. That's where you have your 14-karat gold eggs."

But she and others said it's too soon to judge the chancellor. "He's smart. He's trying real hard. Whatever skills he needs to develop, he will," Senator Hoffman said.

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