COLLEGE PARK — College Park. - Governor Schaefer's and the General Assembly's bold 1988 initiative to elevate the quality of the state's public higher educational institutions has been dealt a serious, perhaps fatal, blow by the state's flagging economy. Included in their design for higher education was the enhancement of the College Park campus as the state's flagship university with, as the enabling legislation states, ''programs and faculty nationally and internationally renowned for the quality of their scholarship,'' an institution that admits ''highly qualified students who have academic profiles that suggest exceptional ability.''
The governor and the General Assembly clearly expected that College Park would serve as the magnet to keep Maryland's brightest students from leaving the state for education elsewhere and that it would be an intellectual resource, assisting the state's efforts to spawn economic growth and address the major societal issues of our day.
In 1988, after decades of steady progress, College Park was poised to fulfill these ambitious goals. Over the ensuing years, new resources have resulted in a series of extraordinary faculty appointments -- six members of the National Academy of Sciences in the past two years and a score of renowned scholars in the arts and humanities and in the professional schools. The engineering and business schools both have received national recognition recently by being listed among the nation's best. Federally sponsored research now exceeds $110 million a year, one of the highest totals of all the universities in the county. Average SAT scores have jumped 100 points in less than five years. Clearly, the state's vision for College Park is within grasp.
But the devastating impact of declining state revenues and the resulting budget reductions now threaten to wipe out these gains. Public higher education has had a series of cuts, which at College Park now total $39.4 million from a 1990 base of $242.7 million. And we must prepare a 1993 budget that will reduce that total by another $4.3 million. The accumulated effect will be a reduction of 18 percent.
The responses to this situation usually take one of two forms: ''Other states are cutting higher education'' or ''Times are tough, everyone is feeling the pinch.'' These statements, while true, ignore some unassailable facts.
First, despite the common perception, Maryland's public universities have been hit much harder than those in most other states in the Mid-Atlantic region. The closest to Maryland is Virginia at 17 percent. North Carolina's cut to higher education in this period totaled 8 percent. Because of tax increases, Pennsylvania and Delaware have avoided any cuts to their higher-education institutions. In most other regions of the nation, higher-education expenditures may have not risen, but relatively few institutions have received significant cuts.
The second point is that quality in higher education is not developed the way it is in business or, for that matter, in state agencies. The time line is much longer. The great universities of America were built through an inexorable process of steadily improving faculty appointments that attract an ever more talented student body. Indeed, there is no distinguished American university today what was not so described in 1950.
If Maryland loses the opportunity it now has for the advancement of its flagship campus and other public universities, it could be a decade or more before we are again in a position to achieve the level of excellence in envisioned in the 1988 Higher Education Reorganization Act. The best quality will leave. Our brightest students will follow. The state's ''brain drain'' -- on the verge of reversing to Maryland's benefit -- will again turn toward other states. Simply put, outstanding faculty and students will seek academic homes in states where educational quality counts, and the process of building both the reality and the perception of public higher education in Maryland will have to begin anew.
Although the hour is late, there is an alternative to this distressing scenario. The citizens of Maryland could send a signal that educational excellence is important to the state. By our actions, we -- as a state -- could say that in education, an area so vital to our future, we will not play second fiddle to Virginia, North Carolina and other states.
Two steps that could yet salvage the situation are: first, dedicate portion of increased tax revenues to funding the recently developed, comprehensive Maryland Higher Education Commission's Statewide Plan for Higher Education; and, second, to ensure the public that its investment is well spent, hold the universities publicly accountable for improvements through the development of regents-approved institution-specific accountability plans.
Perhaps there are other steps that should be considered, but without some such action, those haunting words of John Greenleaf Whittier: ''for of all the sad words of tongue or pen the saddest are these -- 'it might have been','' could well become the epitaph for the hopes and dreams for Maryland higher education, so grandly formulated just three years ago.
William E. Kirwan is president of the University of Maryland at College Park.