Two Chances to Move on Education

TIM BAKER

January 06, 1992|By TIM BAKER

Growing state deficits have ravaged public higher-education budgets in Maryland for the last 15 months. They've thwarted progress in our public colleges and universities. But now the fiscal crisis threatens much more serious damage. It is beginning to erode the vision which is essential to the achievement of excellence.

As the governor and the General Assembly begin the 1992 session this week, the question is whether they will merely postpone or entirely abandon our aspirations for national eminence in higher education.

Unfortunately, Maryland has developed neither the traditions nor the culture to protect educational priorities in tough times. Historically, the state has undervalued and underfunded higher education. Only in 1988 and 1989 did it provide adequate financial support. Then when tax revenues collapsed in 1990, it imposed cumulative cuts of 20 percent on higher-education budgets.

The state's budget crisis simply cannot justify reductions of this magnitude. No other state has hit higher education as hard in this recession. California had a 10 percent deficit, but it cut Berkeley and UCLA by only 4 percent. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill lost only 10 percent. The University of Michigan actually received a 3 percent increase. Pennsylvania imposed new taxes to help raise Penn State's budget by 3.6 percent.

The real threat in Maryland, however, is no longer just the lack omoney. It's the lack of confidence. In a context of scarce financial resources, political and educational leaders may increasingly see higher-education proposals as zero-sum games. If one or two institutions move ahead, the others feel threatened. In that environment horizons shrink, jealousies flourish, and people play small.

Maryland needs to regain a sense of movement in higher education. The governor and the General Assembly have two complementary opportunities to renew momentum. One would cost some money, the other wouldn't. But both ideas threaten the status quo, and so both of them arouse opposition in a time of insecurity. In fact, however, the two initiatives could rejuvenate a sense of excitement in higher education.

First and foremost, the state should resuscitate the enhancement plan for the University of Maryland at College Park and make a commitment to put it back on schedule within three years. The various tax increases and other budgetary packages now under consideration by the legislative leadership include a funding increase of as much as $50 million for higher education in the next fiscal year. The regents should strategically invest a substantial portion of that money in College Park, rather than merely spread it around to restore budget cuts evenly across the entire system.

College Park represents Maryland's only chance to develop one of America's great public research universities. Middle-class taxpayers will support new tax revenues which they can see building a great statewide educational institution. Visible progress toward that achievement would generate excitement and pride all over the state and remobilize broad public support for excellence in higher education generally.

Second, the General Assembly should approve the bold proposal by the governor and the regents to merge the University of Maryland's professional-school campus in Baltimore with the UMBC campus in Catonsville. The unified institution would immediately give the Baltimore area a medium-sized public research university in the Carnegie I category, the highest academic classification, which neither UMAB nor UMBC can achieve on its own. That prestigious designation would enable the new University of Maryland Baltimore to compete more effectively for federal money, corporate research grants, professors and graduate students.

The merger would not require more state funding than the total which UMAB and UMBC would receive separately. Chancellor Donald N. Langenberg, who managed the merger which produced the University of Illinois-Chicago, says flatly that it will not.

A new UMB's concentrated focus on life sciences, health and technology would provide the Baltimore region with the public academic research base necessary to achieve its new vision of itself as an international life-sciences center. No other institution in the region has that capacity.

The merged university would complement rather than threaten College Park's flagship status. A properly defined mission for the new UMB would not permit it to develop into either a comprehensive graduate-education center or a statewide institution. Either development would quickly dilute and divert its crucial life-sciences-health-technology function for the economic development of Baltimore. As the Greater Baltimore Committee pointedly emphasized in supporting the proposal, it is precisely the new institution's sharply defined mission which establishes its the strongest appeal for the region.

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