UM System hasn't fulfilled promise Turf battles, budget cuts impede colleges

June 27, 1993|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Staff Writer

North Carolina. Michigan. Wisconsin.

They have some of the best public colleges in the nation, and they were Maryland's role models when the state restructured its higher education system in 1988. Maryland, it was said, was going to join the elite, thanks to a streamlined governance system and a large infusion of state funding.

It hasn't happened yet.

Instead, Maryland has been stuck in a five-year rut marked by turf battles and leadership turnover. There have been feuds among the governor, legislators, education bureaucrats and campus presidents -- "It's like Bosnia, with all these factions," laments one lawmaker.

Most important, the promise of major new funding evaporated after two years, when the recession rocked the state budget.

While everyone acknowledges that it takes time to build a first-rate college system, some lawmakers and others are critical of the slow progress.

"Maybe I'm just too impatient," said state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a key voice in college issues in Annapolis. "But most things grind so slowly in higher education."

The Baltimore Democrat asks, for example, why the 11 campuses that make up the University of Maryland System still, after five years, operate on separate academic calendars, making it difficult for students to take courses at more than one school.

Or why it took the schools five years to come up with systemwide tuition and enrollment policies, despite prodding from Annapolis.

Only this year did the system begin the painful process of cutting superfluous academic programs to free money for improving others. Even then, the cuts were modest.

Chancellor Donald N. Langenberg acknowledges that the first five years have been marked by "controversy, argument, turmoil, uncertainty, fear -- you name it."

But he compares the system's progress in 1993 to an assessment that might have been given by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower after the D-Day invasion in World War II.

" 'Did you get off the beaches?' 'Yep.' 'Encounter any difficulties?' 'Are you kidding!' " Dr. Langenberg said, describing an imaginary conversation with the general.

" 'Are you going to win the war?' 'Absolutely.' "

In 1988, Maryland ranked 38th among states in per capita spending on higher education, and the system had a generally mediocre reputation. In his first full year in office, Gov. William Donald Schaefer vowed to do something, announcing that his No. 1 legislative priority was to unify the state's illogical patchwork of 13 campuses governed by four boards.

Two colleges -- Morgan State University in Northeast Baltimore and St. Mary's College in Southern Maryland -- successfully fought to remain independent.

The other 11 campuses emerged July 1, 1988, as the new University of Maryland System, governed by a powerful board of regents and supervised by a chancellor.

Lawmakers concluded it might look good on paper but still would be mediocre without more money.

For two years, the budget for the UM schools soared from $449 million before the reorganization to $609 million in budget year 1990.

The good times ended when the recession hit Maryland in 1990. The UM budget has been cut nine times since then and will total $521 million for the fiscal year beginning Thursday -- about what it was in 1989. But with inflation, the money buys less now.

The cuts have led to layoffs, furloughs, larger classes, tuition increases and bickering among institutions fighting for pieces of a smaller budget pie.

"I think everyone would agree that the main culprit, what has pitted everybody against everybody, is the economy," said Frank Parks, head of the system's faculty council.

But some critics say that UM administrators were slow to respond to the lean times.

The system weathered three years of major budget cuts before officials took a systemwide look at which programs could be sacrificed.

When the regents finally made cuts this spring -- in their most visible action in five years -- they eliminated or rearranged some 90 academic programs that were considered superfluous.

Faced with loud protest, however, the regents backed off from the most controversial proposals, such as eliminating the popular social work program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

The savings, which will be redeployed to more essential programs, amounted to about $9 million, a fraction of the system's overall budget.

Even so, Dr. Langenberg calls the cutbacks a remarkable achievement rarely seen in academia.

"Simply look around the country, and you'll discover many institutions who have gingerly stepped up to that issue and backed away," he said.

Some strides

Individually, Dr. Langenberg says, the UM campuses are making some strides. For example, College Park, the flagship campus, is becoming more elite by turning away less qualified students. It continues to receive national recognition for some of its best departments, such as computer science and mathematics.

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