Aery floating proposals to privatize some colleges Making some schools private seen as a way to ease budget crunch.

October 03, 1991|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,Evening Sun Staff

With state budget cuts wreaking havoc among Maryland's public colleges, Secretary of Higher Education Shaila Aery is asking state college and university presidents whether some of their institutions could become quasi-private schools.

Aery told the Maryland Higher Education Commission's Finance Policy Committee today that the issue is particularly pressing because the state may have to impose additional cuts of up to $150 million this year, and higher education remains vulnerable.

Those cuts could come on top of the $450 million Gov. William Donald Schaefer cut from the state budget earlier this week.

Aery told the committee that privatization is a strong option in a time of fiscal crisis. She plans to take the idea before the full commission Oct. 15.

"Access without quality is a cruel hoax," she declared. "So we have to decide what our priorities are. Do we close public colleges and universities . . . or phase out funding for colleges and let them market-operate?"

Turning from state-run to private means that certain University of Maryland institutions, Morgan State University and St. Mary's College could convert all or part of their colleges to private enterprises. The move would require legislative approval.

Tuition would increase to private university levels -- in some cases double -- and the university or college would be released from state procurement laws and regulations. State aid to the institution would significantly decrease, freeing more funds for remaining state universities.

Aery's proposal comes at a time when a $450 million state fiscal crisis is prompting major cutbacks in higher education funding. The secretary also plans to actively seek ways to close and merge campuses to save money and "protect quality," said Jeffrey Welsh, spokesman for the Maryland Higher Education Commission. The concept of privatization is being debated in Virginia, where a $2.2 billion budget crisis provoked academics to compile a report calling for changes that would allow the state's "most prestigious and financially strongest institutions" to relinquish public status.

In Maryland, Aery's statewide higher education plan calls for $500 million in new state funding for academic initiatives over the next five years.

But that plan appears dead in the wake of this week's budget cuts by Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who announced the firing of 1,766 state employees and cuts to a wide variety of social, medical, police and educational agencies, including a $77 million reduction in higher education.

Battered by 18 months of budget cuts, some UM presidents contacted yesterday endorsed Aery's call to study privatization.

"The assumption is that we're in for a long, hard economic time," said UM College Park President William Kirwan. "It's essential that we look at the concept of privatization. It's a concept that should be given attention. In Virginia, their trouble is no more severe than ours. We've caught up with Virginia in terms of budget cuts."

Kirwan and Towson State University President Hoke L. Smith said the study would have to determine whether all or parts of UM institutions would convert to private universities. Kirwan said College Park's colleges of business and management and engineering could be candidates for private status.

Success of privatization "will depend on the tradition and the character of the institution," Kirwan added. He said at least six of the UM's 11 presidents have recently expressed interest in studying privatization.

Smith said privatization raises questions about ownership of buildings, access for students at higher tuition levels, state regulations and revised funding patterns.

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