Frustrated by system, UM leaders seek change College presidents discuss autonomy

October 27, 1991|By Patricia Meisol

A public spat over the grievances of historically black colleges last week is the latest skirmish in a long-running turf battle between two state higher education agencies that has been raging almost since the moment they were created three years ago.

The agencies are the University of Maryland Board of Regents and the Maryland Higher Education Commission.

Their feud, combined with severe budget cuts, dissatisfaction with the leadership of the UM system and the relative prosperity and success of two public campuses that are not part of the

system, has unleashed the quiet fury of college presidents. Meeting with legislators behind closed doors, some campus leaders are raising questions about whether the 3-year-old state university system is working.

"I think a number of campuses are quite disenchanted with the system," said Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, president of the Maryland Senate. He said college presidents have come to him privately to express their frustration and fear that public discussion of the issue would result in retaliation.

Mr. Miller said the state university system has failed to be the promised rising tide to raise all ships and instead has left "Maryland's educational boats stuck in the mud."

"Where it is obvious that the system is not working," he said, "is when the president of a small liberal arts college in Southern Maryland can negotiate his budget directly with the governor, but the presidents of the University of Maryland College Park, the University of Maryland at Baltimore and Towson State University have to go through a chain of command."

Few presidents would speak publicly last week, but one who spoke on the condition that he not be identified said that as many as eight of the 11 campus presidents would like to get out of the state university system and set up their own boards of trustees as is done in Virginia.

"We'd rather take our chances with the Maryland Higher Education Commission," this president said. Others are telling lawmakers that the millions now spent to run the central administration staff and regents of the University of Maryland could be better spent on campuses.

The regents' frustration, meanwhile, boiled over publicly last week when some charged that the commission had unfairly denied new academic programs at black institutions and approved them on white campuses. The commission struck back with charges that the regents haven't paid enough attention to black colleges.

"I think both agencies are using the black college issue to posture themselves in public or political arenas as being the one concerned about these institutions and pointing to the other one as the bad guy," said Delegate Howard P. Rawlings, D-Baltimore, who notes that black colleges have made significant progress in recent years. "Usually when you have people pointing fingers," he added, "both have committed sins."

Nowhere is the anxiety more apparent than at College Park, whose enhancement was one of the key reasons the legislature reorganized higher education in 1988, but where frustrated faculty members are watching their hopes slip quickly away. While the chief concern on campus is to cut the budget with the least damage to programs and students, President William E. Kirwan has named a committee of about a dozen top campus leaders to advise him on how best to position the campus to realize the national eminence envisioned for it in the 1988 law.

Among the items up for discussion are secession from the state university system; unification with University College, an independent night-school arm at College Park that in other states is usually run by the main campus; and the return of such independent research units as an agricultural institute spun off by the chancellor in one of his first acts of office, according to Jacob Goldhaber, acting dean of graduate studies.

"We recognize we are not a local institution, but a state institution that has an obligation to serve the state. We want to perform in a way that brings it luster, so the question is, 'How can we organize ourselves to do what is expected and do it well?' " he said.

The committee was set up a month ago after the regents authorized Chancellor Donald N. Langenberg to study possible mergers, closings and program cuts with an eye toward long-term efficiency. He is to report back in January.

The budget crisis appears chiefly responsible for disillusionment with the system, but there are other sources of frustration:

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