The Turf Protectors Circle the Wagons

BARRY RASCOVAR

July 14, 1991|By BARRY RASCOVAR | BARRY RASCOVAR,Barry Rascovar is deputy editor of the editorial pages of The Sun. His column on Maryland politics appears here each week.

That perpetual Maryland swamp known as higher education seems unending. Sure, the players come and go. The times are different. But the battle is much the same as it was a decade

ago. This terrain looks awfully familiar.

This is rough territory. Any time you propose a change in public higher-ed, you're sure to stir up a hornet's nest. Politics in the State House is a picnic compared with the bare-knuckles arena of academia.

And when the word ''merger'' is whispered, professors go ballistic. Turf protection, no matter how lousy the sod, takes precedence. The threatened institution, or department, or course, is portrayed as irreplaceable and on the brink of superstardom. The message from academics to politicians and state officials: Keep off our grass (and send us more money to ensure our superstar status).

Yet the notion of mergers keeps reappearing. It makes so much sense, after all -- unless you are a turf protector in academia or a turf protector in the legislature.

What is so compelling this time about the merger talk is the bleak fiscal picture confronting higher education. The State of Maryland is broke. Even with a big tax increase, there won't be nearly enough new money to fill the academic wish lists. In fact, state colleges will be lucky to recoup the $70 million cut from their budgets this past year.

A sensible solution would consolidate and concentrate resources the state's very best university and campus programs. That's what Chancellor Donald Langenberg proposes at the University of Maryland, and it's what Higher Education Secretary Shaila Aery wants to accomplish statewide.

There is a second compelling reason for merger discussions. When the state reorganized higher education in 1988, the General Assembly set out three objectives: creating a first-rate ''flagship'' campus at College Park; improving graduate and professional opportunities in the Baltimore area, and enhancing historically black colleges and universities. Mergers could help achieve two of these goals.

Dr. Aery and the Maryland Higher Education Commission have put two plans on the table: combining the University of Maryland at Baltimore with the University of Maryland Baltimore County, -- and studying a merger of Morgan State University and Coppin State College. Both make sense. And, of course, both have been attacked.

The UMAB-UMBC merger is so logical this time around that the opposition is muted. Two years ago, though, a similar effort provoked a vicious assault by UMAB academics on the chairman of the university's board of regents, who resigned to end the hostilities.

Now the climate has changed. Business and city leaders are desperate for academic participation in turning Baltimore into a center for biotechnology and the ''life sciences.'' A UMAB-UMBC union would bring together the Catonsville campus' superb biotechnology research and its budding computer and engineering departments with the downtown campus' excellent medical school, federally funded research and its other top-notch professional schools.

It seems an ideal marriage. The two campuses already share graduate programs and a shuttle-bus service. Putting them under a unified administration and consolidating their activities could reap big dividends.

This time around, top officials at UMAB are cautiously optimistic about the merger. They, too, now see the benefits. Perhaps it was the budget crunch that woke them up. Fewer and fewer state dollars will be coming higher education's way. Only the biggest and the best campuses will reap the rewards.

That same logic is one of the driving forces behind the suggestion that a Morgan-Coppin merger be studied. Neither campus is likely to attain superior status with the state's continuing cash squeeze. Both are more likely to be starved for new funds. Coppin, in particular, is in danger of being left behind.

Yet if the two schools combine, they could emerge as an area powerhouse, especially in the field of urban education. The merged entity could be far greater than the sum of its parts.

Immediately, though, Coppin officials attacked the notion of a merger. They don't even want a study conducted. The turf protectors are feverishly at work. One black legislator even suggested that putting Morgan and Coppin together -- thus creating a more potent higher-education force within the region -- would somehow violate the Civil Rights Act. Leave well enough alone, he indicated.

If both Morgan and Coppin were flourishing, if both were nationally renowned for their achievements, if both offered Baltimore students first-rate education opportunities, there would, indeed, be no reason to alter the status quo. But that's not the case. A unified administration, with consolidated course offerings, would conserve scarce resources and let Morgan-Coppin play a far bigger role in the Baltimore area.

Ms. Aery believes this union is inevitable by the end of the decade because the arguments are so persuasive. Still, the turf protectors have the upper hand at this stage. Haven't we been here before?

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