After the storm, College Park needs a super provost

Morris Freedman

September 16, 1992|By Morris Freedman

THE University of Maryland at College Park is mounting national search for still another academic vice president. He or she will also bear the title of provost. The appointment is crucial to the campus' renewed momentum. Provosts normally preside over the daily routine of a university, the unceasing shaping of its image.

In the last decade, College Park has suffered cruel blows. Its budgets have been cut drastically, its athletic reputation tarnished, major programs weakened, administrators and eminent professors drifting on and off campus like so many tourists. It needs an enlightened, seasoned leader concentrating academics.

A certain chaos has marked top administration at College Park. Its numerous academic vice presidents in recent years have either been acting, short-lived, narrowly focused or simply overwhelmed. Since the massive administrative shake-ups of the and '80s, the campus has seen even more vice presidents than presidents and chancellors.

Periodically, virtually every administrator, from department chair to leader-in-chief (called "chancellor" or "president," depending on the organizational chart and nomenclature du jour), has been acting (or "interim," as some prefer to be called). The campus once boasted five coequal provosts, a phenomenon unique in the Western world. The five competed with the then-academic vice president, who was not a provost.

The majority of UMCP leaders have been from the physical sciences, mathematics or engineering, often displaying a confused respect for, or simple misunderstanding of, the humanities and social sciences. One thought English faculty taught freshmen how to write sonnets -- "a good thing," he said. This pattern ignores the example of the great private and public institutions presided over by people from the humanities (Yale, Columbia, Virginia), or at least mindful of the need for breadth in higher education (Johns Hopkins, the California system). One administrator thought Phi Beta Kappa, the oldest American fraternity honoring the liberal arts, was a union of radicals.

A new academic vice president should also be aware of emerging new technologies, of national trends in curriculum. He or she should take pride in developing cost-effective programs, instead of, for example, the enormously costly, state-of-the-arts campus communication system now in place at College Park. He or she should understand that distinguished graduate and undergraduate programs, not buildings and grounds (however attractive), bring a university prestige.

A fresh provost should be alert to the vast and expanding educational and cultural resources of the Baltimore-Washington area: the science agencies, government bureaus, museums, libraries, theaters, concert and lecture halls, publications. He or she should be worldly, not parochial, in awareness and concern, should know that in potential for intellectual entrepreneurship, College Park rivals San Francisco and Boston.

Retired military, government or business leaders may still successfully serve as university chancellors or presidents, no doubt, but provosts should have authentic academic careers and display a capacious and discerning sense of what a #F foremost academic community today must be.

UMCP must not doom itself to repeating the mistakes of its past by ignoring its lessons, to paraphrase George Santayana's warning about history. The search for the new provost should be as sophisticated and as wise as the person it seeks.

Morris Freedman taught English at College Park until his retirement. He writes from Hyattsville.

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