Secession Talk on Campus

November 03, 1991

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and a number of campus presidents within the University of Maryland engage in sheer sophistry by calling for abolition of the UM system. They see secession as the solution for the current university budget woes and lack of funds to achieve academic greatness. Such fundamentally flawed logic would earn them failing grades in any college classroom.

Dismantling the UM system won't solve anything. It will not end the campus presidents' main complaint: scarcity of money to upgrade their schools. A decentralized system with all 13 of the state's campuses in bitter competition for limited state funds would be fratricidal. The campus with the best connections (College Park) would win the rewards; others would scramble for leftovers.

Not surprisingly, College Park in Senator Miller's Prince George's home turf is leading the secessionist drive. It not only wants freedom from the UM regents, it wants to swallow up University College, with its $90 million budget. This move would give College Park enormous statewide influence.

Other campus presidents fret over the constraints within the UM system, failure to win approval for pet projects from Chancellor Donald Langenberg and the regents' continuing struggle for supremacy with the Maryland Higher Education Commission. The two panels have been locked in tense confrontation since the state's new higher-education hierarchy was created in 1988.

Senator Miller, the flagship campus' mouthpiece in Annapolis, would destroy the UM system to enhance College Park. He wants all campus presidents to vie for support in Annapolis on their own -- a battle he knows College Park would win. That is a recipe for educational disaster.

Secession is not the answer. If the 11 campuses won their autonomy, each would duplicate such centralized functions as budgeting, accounting, auditing, data processing and capital planning. Support services -- and costs -- would mushroom.

Rather than seeking autonomy, campus presidents ought to follow Chancellor Langenberg's lead in studying ways to restructure higher education to free up money for high-priority objectives. For instance, why does College Park spend $45 million on academic support services when just down the road, Bowie State College spends under $2 million? Yes, College Park has an enrollment eight times larger than Bowie State, but its academic support spending is more than 20 times bigger.

In this era of shrinking government resources, all agencies have to adjust. Instead of holding out false hopes that secession will end the budget drain, campus presidents ought to face up to the problem and pursue new ways to deliver quality education at less cost. This is the challenge confronting Maryland's public colleges in the 1990s, not re-igniting the turf wars that plunged Maryland higher education into decades of mediocrity.

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