'Cannibalism' in Maryland's Colleges

November 15, 1992|By THOMAS W. WALDRON

There are charges of "cannibalism" and "fratricide."

There are confidential plans to undercut colleagues and grab turf.

In other words, it's life as usual in Maryland higher education.

In the best of times, the Maryland higher education landscape is a complicated battleground, where college presidents joust for attention, prestige and money.

Now, with the state budget in a nose dive, the picture has gotten even uglier. There simply isn't enough money to go around. In the last three years, the University of Maryland system has lost $123 million in state funds.

That means students are paying significantly higher tuitions but often have to suffer through overcrowded classes. Professors haven't gotten a raise in three years, but some people still complain that they don't do enough work.

Research institutions are fighting over money with the teaching colleges. At Towson State University, the faculty senate is so concerned about subsidizing high-profile research projects elsewhere in the system that it passed a resolution of "grave concern" about the policies of Donald N. Langenberg, chancellor of the UM system.

The solution, say many in higher education, is to merge, consolidate and reorganize parts of the Maryland system. That generally means cutting back on someone else's empire.

"It's a process in which people have a lot of vested interests," says Dr. Langenberg, in an understatement. "And it's hard to get people to focus on the common good."

Consider some of the proposals.

* Raymond J. Miller, the head of the Maryland Institute for Agriculture and Natural Resources (MIANR), has proposed doing away with classes for sophomores and freshmen at UM College Park, concentrating the state's flagship campus on upper-level courses and graduate research.

Not to be outdone, the president of College Park has proposed absorbing MIANR into College Park.

* Dr. Miller has also suggested merging all public colleges in the Baltimore region. The last time a similar idea was floated, in 1989, the flak was so thick the incoming president of UM at Baltimore decided to stay put in Massachusetts and the head of the Board of Regents had to quit.

* Some people in higher education are talking about turning Coppin State College into a two-year institution. At the same time, others say the state should pump vast sums of money into the campus. Others are suggesting a merger of all public nursing programs, which would hurt Towson State, among others. Towson President Hoke L. Smith compares his campus to Poland as it was carved up during World War II.

* Another proposal would merge University College, and its vast continuing education program, with College Park. Until 1970, University College was part of College Park and its headquarters sits on the College Park campus.

* One college president simply wants the state to get rid of some colleges. Many of the campuses were private once; why not try it again?

University of Baltimore President H. Mebane Turner says some of his colleagues are simply trying to "grease their own palms."

"Some of these ideas are going to upset people," acknowledges Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a key legislator on higher education issues. "But it's about time."

Needless to say, there is no consensus on all this.

The other day, UM Chancellor Langenberg brought together the presidents of his 14 institutions to try to find some common ground. In an effort to reduce the posturing and turf battles, Dr. Langenberg gave the presidents individual computers they could use to offer anonymous opinions about various ideas.

In the end, the group did reach consensus on one item, Dr. Langenberg said. "Quality." The group is committed to quality -- as opposed to quantity -- in the UM system, he said.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. says the presidents and leaders of Maryland higher education come up with nice-sounding ideas that are politically unrealistic.

"They've got their heads in the clouds and they don't have their feet on the ground," Senator Miller said. "They're hopelessly naive."

This latest round of reorganizations and mergers comes only four years after the legislature, with much agonizing, passed what everybody called a "landmark" reorganization of the state's colleges.

At the time, some state leaders said the changes would help take the University of Maryland system into the highest reaches of public academia, up there with Chapel Hill and Ann Arbor.

The legislation itself was an untidy political compromise that created two new oversight boards with ill-defined lines of authority.

One, the Board of Regents, oversees the 14 institutions in the University of Maryland system. The other, the Maryland Higher Education Commission (MHEC), regulates all higher education in the state, including UM, community colleges and private colleges.

MHEC also oversees two public schools, Morgan State University and St. Mary's College, that had the foresight to stay out of the UM system altogether. Some officials in the UM system now look enviously at their independence.

Now, some people actually want to wade back into the law books to pass another landmark reorganization.

A key goal should be strengthening the authority of the system chancellor, who is currently "hobbled by institutional fratricide and cannibalism," according to Dr. Miller.

Says Dr. Miller: "The notion that 14 autonomous, semi-independent presidents will work collegially for the greater good of . . . public higher education in Maryland is preposterous and inane."

That's one idea on which everyone can probably agree.

Thomas W. Waldron covers education for The Baltimore Sun.

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