It's been hard to tell the good news from the bad news in the University of Maryland system this month.
The bad news was that the system would have to absorb another $19 million reduction in its state appropriations. The good news was that the cut wasn't bigger. Much bigger. After all, the governor had to find a total of $450 million in new cuts to balance the state budget again. If it weren't for his support for higher education, the state university system could have taken a $63 million hit.
That's not all. The bad news was that the secretary of higher education immediately got into a bitter fight with the Board of Regents and the chancellor over the reduction. They can't agree on whether the $19 million cut should be evenly spread around the system or whether certain institutions and programs should be slashed significantly more than others. They can't even agree on who ought to make the decisions.
The good news is that this ridiculous imbroglio ought finally to embarrass everybody enough so that they will now sit down and straighten out who's responsible for what. If they can't, or won't, then someone like the governor ought to do it for them.
The outlines of a resolution are easy to see but hard to face.
In part, this mess results from two related tendencies which unhappily have characterized the governance of the UM system since the great reorganization in 1988. On the one hand, the secretary and the Maryland Higher Education Commission continually poach on the regents' and the chancellor's authority. If the secretary is going to dictate things like internal budgetary allocations for the UM system, then what's the point in having a chancellor or Board of Regents at all?
On the other hand, the Board of Regents had to replace its original chairman two years ago. It also has a new chancellor who is still learning how the system works. As a result, they have been unable, unwilling or unready to make hard decisions about programs and priorities. The secretary and commission simply move into the vacuum.
What's easy to see is that the regents and the chancellor, not the secretary and commission, ought to run the system. What's hard to face is the enormity of the challenge confronting them.
The UM system must be dramatically restructured. The job is going to be very difficult. But if the regents and the chancellor can't or won't do it, then the secretary and commission will have to.
Until the first budget cuts in the summer of 1990, the University of Maryland system had grown like a spreading tree. No overall strategy controlled it. No one had ever pruned it. Schools happily added exciting new programs but rarely terminated dull old ones. Special institutes and centers grew up. In the heady days of 1988-1989, everyone developed ambitious plans for further expansion.
Budget realities have now dampened these expectations. People in the system realize their wish lists are dead letters and their existing programs are at risk. But to date all the budget cuts have been spread around evenly in order to apportion the pain ''fairly'' and thereby avoid a fight. So far, the regents have not sawed off any limbs.
The time for that kind of cutting has arrived. Should all four of the free-standing research institutes remain independent administrative entities? Or should the regents fold their research functions into university campuses? Does Baltimore really need two law schools? How many business schools? Which of the 11 campuses should be pushed ahead? Which ones ought to be cut back to compensate?
Some of the issues require thinking through the unthinkable. Should the regents eliminate a campus entirely? Which one? Other issues raise troubling philosophical questions. Should Maryland run a high-tuition low-appropriation system of universities like Pennsylvania or a low-tuition high-appropriation one like North Carolina?
Should everyone have access to heavily subsidized public higher education, regardless of personal financial means? Regardless of high school performance? Or college performance? Does it make any sense that tuition at College Park is only $200 higher than at Coppin State? Shouldn't performance standards be imposed on our universities to measure their teaching effectiveness? Reward success? Punish failure?
Many of these issues are not just important. They are not just going to be difficult and painful to make. They are going to be controversial. They are going to offend, alienate and even enrage the leaders of important educational institutions which have powerful constituencies. They are going to ignite a political furor, because for the first time in the history of Maryland public higher education, there are going to be winners and losers. Big losers.