A name-calling battle has erupted between the two top public bodies in charge of Maryland higher education over veiled allegations of racism in handing out academic programs.
The University of Maryland Board of Regents fired the opening shot last week with a resolution accusing the panel that sets state higher education policy of "egregious treatment" of the three historically black campuses under its purview.
Specifically, the regents complained that the state panel had unfairly blocked three new programs at majority black campuses while letting 23 new programs sail through on white campuses. Additionally, they complained about inordinate delays in approving a master plan for the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.
Outraged, the Maryland Higher Education Commission fired back, labeling the charges "totally irresponsible" and asserting that if the regents were genuinely concerned about historically black campuses, they would have submitted plans to improve those campuses when they were due more than two years ago. The panel also offered a fiery criticism of the way the regents are doing their job.
In a letter signed by Vice Chair Quentin R. Lawson, the commission complained that the governing board had signed off on unrealistically ambitious expansion plans on all state campuses in the past three years, with the result that it took an extra year of work to write a state master plan for higher education.
Now, the two sides aren't talking. When he heard of the regents' charge, Commission Chair J. Henry Butta canceled an Oct. 30 meeting intended to iron out differences between the two groups.
The stalemate comes at a time when the captains of higher education need to cooperate to steer the 11-campus public university system through a budget crisis so severe that students on some campuses cannot find all the classes they need to graduate.
"We're fiddling while Rome is burning," said Shaila R. Aery, the state's higher education secretary and chief executive officer of the commission.
She and the commission are charged with recommending broad policy and budgets to achieve the policy of the governor and legislature.
The regents are supposed to govern the 11-campus state university system.
In a telephone interview, Regent Albert Whiting said he raised questions last week about the treatment of historically black campuses after discovering that the commission has reviewed 26 proposals from the University of Maryland campuses since 1988 and approved all but the three proposed by historically black campuses.
"It seems to me this is a clear-cut indication of a pattern that has been engaged in by MHEC," Dr. Whiting said. "I think this is an attempt not to enhance the black schools as the state is supposed to do in the 1985 court decision."
Dr. Whiting was referring to a desegregation agreement between the state and the U.S. Department of Justice in which the state agreed to enhance historically black campuses over a five-year period.
Maryland higher education officials say the programs were rejected for legitimate academic reasons.
The three rejected programs are:
* A master of arts degree in gerontology at Bowie State University. This is on appeal and is likely to be approved. According to Bowie President James L. Lyons, MHEC hired a biased consultant to review the proposal, and the consultant's conclusion that there is no need for the program is in conflict with the testimony of state social service officials.
* A master's degree in physical therapy at UMES. The dispute here is over whether the campus has the resources to offer the program. UMES now says it has federal grants to support the program and will resubmit it for approval.
* A master of arts in teaching at Coppin State College. This program is designed to attract students with bachelor's degrees in the liberal arts and sciences who want to switch careers. Similar to a Towson State University program, it was rejected and appealed three times in an 18-month period before Coppin withdrew it.
Yesterday, MHEC officials said the Coppin proposal was rejected for three principal reasons: It required applicants to take 12 extra undergraduate credits in education instead of giving them graduate-level education courses as at other universities; it lacked enough in-classroom training for applicants who come without education backgrounds; and third, Coppin failed to obtain agreements with city schools for its students to practice teaching techniques.