Closing, privatization of colleges to be raised

October 03, 1991|By David Michael Ettlin

The possibility of closing university and college campuses or turning over some of their operations to the private sector will be raised today by Maryland's secretary of higher education.

Secretary Shaila R. Aery will make the proposals to the Finance Policy Committee of the Maryland Higher Education Commission as its members begin budget hearings for the next fiscal year amid a deepening state financial crisis.

"Two issues she will raise are closing down public campuses and privatization of public campuses," said Jeffrey R. Welsh, spokesman for the commission and Dr. Aery. "Let me emphasize there is no plan, no list. This is simply an idea that the secretary believes the commission and the rest of the higher education community should consider as it tries to deal with this budget problem."

Dr. Aery also will present an overview on the state budget's problems and describe how they affect higher education as the committee members begin the commission's annual budget process, Mr. Welsh said.

At the session, representatives of the commission's five segments receiving public support -- the University of Maryland System, Morgan State University, St. Mary's College, community colleges and independent colleges -- are to present their budget priorities for fiscal year 1993, which begins July 1.

But even as some representatives look ahead, they will be feeling the pain of cuts in the current year's budget -- including slashes in state grants to private colleges and universities and cuts in assistance to community colleges announced this week as Gov. William Donald Schaefer swung an ax at state spending.

The budget priorities are intended to help the Higher Education Commission make its annual budget recommendations to the governor and General Assembly. The results ultimately will affect the quality and cost of programs for more than 250,000 full-time and part-time students across Maryland.

Mr. Welsh said Dr. Aery plans to "describe some of the hTC approaches that might help us get through this, and solicit from the commission members ideas for solving our budget problems or at least dealing with them. Then the commission staff will work on those ideas."

The concept of privatization of public institutions of higher learning is already under consideration in Virginia. A report there this summer by higher education officials feeling the pinch of state economic troubles said conversion of Virginia's strongest colleges and universities into semiprivate institutions is possible "normal" funding is not restored by 1996.

The Virginia officials said it might be best to allow the state's institutions to privatize through a piecemeal approach: an engineering school at one university might go private, for example while other schools on the same campus, less able to survive primarily on tuition revenue, would remain state-supported.

Dr. Aery, who was on vacation, could not be reached for comment last night.

But one Maryland public college president was already applauding the suggestions.

Edward T. Lewis, president of St. Mary's College -- a top-rated liberal arts school that has been likened to a private institution of higher learning -- said it was his understanding of the privatization concept that it would chiefly involve the areas of procurement and clerical and maintenance workers.

State control results in bureaucratic requirements that make procurement "a very cumbersome process," he said, explaining that privatization would simplify the process and put the control of salaries and benefits of some employees now under the Maryland classification system in the hands of the college.

Mr. Lewis estimated that privatization, as he envisions it, could produce a savings of 5 percent to 10 percent of his college's budget.

"We're facing an incredibly difficult situation. . . . I think we have to look at everything with fresh eyes and ask questions we haven't asked before. I have to applaud [Dr. Aery] for doing that," he said.

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