The Regents' Strabismal Vision

MIKE BOWLER

January 16, 1993|By MIKE BOWLER

The University of Maryland Board of Regents put a title on its plan for cutting back programs and saving money at the 10 UM campuses: ''Achieving the Vision in Hard Times: II.'' (There was, presumably, an ''Achieving the Vision: I,'' but no one remembers Regrettably, the plan (to paraphrase Dorothy Parker) runs the visionary gamut from A to B. No doubt there are some courses and programs in the huge system that need to be dropped or scaled back; no one has gone through it with even a gap-toothed comb for years. And the regents' suggestion for combining administrative and support services into ''regional centers,'' where economies of scale could be achieved, makes good sense.

But much of the regents' thinking on academic matters is flawed. The major problem was expressed cogently by Jerry Miller, a philosophy professor at Salisbury State University, in these pages last week: The regents consider the system to be a machine of interchangeable parts. If they drop physics and chemistry majors at Towson State University, those who might have enrolled at Towson will gladly trip down to UMBC. If they drop theater at UMBC, theater majors who live in Ellicott City will happily run around the Beltway to Towson State. If they drop social work at UMBC, social-work students will journey to Coppin State College. And so on.

The regents' fundamental mistake is regarding a university as an industrial model. Perhaps this is because the board is headed by George McGowan, retired chairman of Baltimore Gas & Electric, which saves money by installing a device on air conditioners to turn them off during peak times.

That's not how universities work. They are extremely labor-intensive. Very little of the work on a college campus is done by machine. Machines, as Professor Miller pointed out, do have interchangeable parts. Not universities. Their students and faculty work in tightly knit communities. Their alumni are intensely loyal, which is one reason campuses are rarely closed permanently. Even within a single discipline, programs vary greatly among campuses; the UMBC theater program is much more experimental, for instance, than the one at Towson State.

Colleges also are governed collegially, with faculty having a major voice in academic matters. Since 1990, the UM system has suffered eight budget cuts totaling $123 million, with faculty having had very little to say about it (and having had no raises for three years). Now a ninth cut is proposed. No wonder the professors are angry.

The other constituency largely ignored over the three years is the most important one: the university's clients -- its students. They have had to endure tuition increases, crowded classes and other inconveniences to help ease Maryland's budget crisis. Now they would be asked to travel from one corner of the metropolitan area to the other to major in basic disciplines such as chemistry. No wonder they are angry.

One suspects, moreover, that the regents and Chancellor Donald Langenberg have vastly inflated the potential savings of the plan, which they put at $25 million. But if the experience of other states is any indication, few tenured professors will actually lose their jobs. This ''action plan for reinvesting the system's resources,'' the subtitle, shows signs of great haste, little consultation with knowledgeable outsiders and political posturing. The regents have been looking for a way to show the state power brokers that they have clout. This isn't it.

But, as Governor Schaefer would say, what are the alternatives? Here's a modest proposal (also drawn from private industry) that could save money while spreading the pain relatively evenly: Increase faculty productivity.

Professors teach 15 hours a week in Maryland's highly regarded community colleges. In the UM system they might teach 9, and few teach more than 12. In a system with 70,000 students on 10 campuses, an increase in the workload of faculty (except those directly engaged in research) has the potential of significant savings.

Class sizes would be greatly reduced, there would be much less need for part-time faculty, and such a move would endear the university to the General Assembly and, no doubt, to Mr. Schaefer. Teachers would have to work harder, but in this painful era of declining budgets they would at least keep their jobs. It is a much less potentially damaging proposal than the one put forward last month by the Board of Regents.

Mike Bowler is editor of The Evening Sun's ''Other Voices'' page.

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