College Park's three revolutions

Morris Freedman

August 15, 1991|By Morris Freedman

THE University of Maryland College Park has gone through three revolutions in the last quarter-century, the period I've been associated with it.

The first occurred gradually during the mid '60s, when it began to emerge as an estimable academic center after decades of national football prominence.

The second, triggerred by the nationwide upheavals of the early '70s, climaxed in a massive administrative reorganization followed by perhaps premature but clarion proclamations that College Park was joining the ranks of the country's "top 10."

The present transformation, impelled by the recession, may revive the slow, sometimes imperceptible but authentic progress of the first.

The resources of population, location and will to support ambitious growth are not in question. What may be lacking is a sustained, rich awareness of what higher education means nationally and what it can mean locally, of what can be done with non-material treasure alone.

Most immediately, the question is whether the present campus establishment can reverse the profligacy that has dominated much of the past two decades. Can it resist the current academic fads, which, long after they have passed, will leave uncomfortable legacies? Can it focus on generating greatness organically, from the inside out, in place of throwing up briefly dazzling facades?

During the first revolution, top administration encouraged chairpersons to hire promising young novitiates as well as veterans. But as the second revolution gained momentum, competition for celebrities replaced sober recruitment. Luring stars required only money, not canny assessment of achievement or promise.

The campus threw money at the slightest appearance of a problem, often creating a new one. Instead of shoring up weak departments or programs, the administration splintered them. Instead of effectively encouraging proficient writing across campus, it ordained a universal second writing course to be taught only by highly specialized professors, who turned out not to exist.

The vastness of College Park tempts wastefulness. In the manner of some New Deal bureaucracy concocting projects, officials regularly disturb its serenity by tearing up and repairing the same areas over and over. The handsome Georgian buildings and the rolling lawns are in a perpetual state of baffling construction.

Lovely fruit trees that have blossomed for many springs are replaced by saplings. Great trenches are dug up, filled in, surfaces resodded, all soon to be torn up again. Within the last year or so, Taliaferro Hall, which houses the English department, had its windows replaced twice and a sophisticated telephone system installed before being vacated for total renovation.

Some improvements produce actual losses in efficiency. We multiply unoccupied seats on campus as we build new classrooms instead of using those empty on afternoons, evenings and Saturday mornings. Elaborate restructuring of McKeldin Library has made stacks inaccessible to more than one person at a time.

More distressing than physical disturbances has been recurring professional casualness. Administrators cast aside classic principles of university governance, conferring immediate tenure on new faculty without consulting colleagues, unilaterally naming chaired professorships, easing hallowed criteria for advancement.

Yet all of the above may still not suggest a terminal condition. Reservoirs of potential and of dedication remain. But administrators and professors must join in acknowledging that the quick fixes of the past have not fulfilled worthy ambitions. Everyone must recognize that mega-expenditures can result in mega-waste.

It may actually hurt College Park to be exempted as the "flagship campus" from economies imposed on all state institutions, as has been proposed. The destiny of the campus depends ultimately on good sense, good faith, sensibly directed energy, above all on care and wisdom, not mainly on triumphant budget lobbying.

Morris Freedman is an English professor at College Park and former editor of Commentary.

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