UM official rejects Ala. university post Schaefer call helps to keep her here

July 20, 1993|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Staff Writer

Bolstered by an outpouring of support -- and a raise in salary -- Rita R. Colwell, the president of the Maryland Biotechnology Institute, has turned down an offer to become president of the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Dr. Colwell, 58, said a telephone call last week from Gov. William Donald Schaefer helped persuade her to stay.

"Having the support of the governor and the personal call from him, that made a big difference," Dr. Colwell said yesterday. Other state officials, as well as a representative of Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke also urged her to stay, Dr. Colwell said.

As president of MBI, which is part of the 14-institution University of Maryland System, Dr. Colwell has been a leader in the state's high profile effort to foster life sciences research as an economic development tool.

State officials agreed to increase Dr. Colwell's $135,000 annual salary, according to her boss, UM Chancellor Donald N. Langenberg.

Dr. Colwell referred questions about her salary to Dr. Langenberg, who declined to discuss the raise until the details are worked out.

Dr. Langenberg said he was "delighted" that Dr. Colwell is staying at MBI.

"What she's doing," Dr. Langenberg said, "is helping create a very significant contribution to Maryland's ability to compete in what is surely the most important future technology in which this state is attempting to establish a position."

Dr. Colwell said she was "very close" to taking the Alabama offer but pulled out after a late-night conversation with her husband and two daughters over the weekend.

With Dr. Colwell out of the running, the University of Alabama board of trustees was expected today to name J. Claude Bennett, chairman of the university's department of medicine, as the new president.

University of Alabama Chancellor Philip E. Austin praised Dr. Bennett and Dr. Colwell as "distinguished scholars and veteran administrators who are at the very top of the field."

Dr. Colwell would have moved from running a small institution with a budget of $14 million and fewer than 300 employees to running a major research university with a budget last year of $820 million.

The university, with nearly 16,000 employees, is the largest employer in Birmingham. Its hospital and medical school are well regarded and the university ranks 20th among universities in funding from the National Institutes of Health.

"It was an opportunity that was extraordinary," Dr. Colwell said. "One probably gets very few of these in one's lifetime."

The Maryland Biotechnology Institute, which Dr. Colwell has run since 1987, sponsors research at several sites around the state in genetics, biochemistry and protein engineering, with special emphasis on marine, medical and agricultural biotechnology. Its scientists are doing genetic research on projects ranging from fast-growing fish to safer pesticides and new drugs.

The institute's profile will probably soar in 1994, when one of its units, the Center of Marine Biotechnology, moves into the Columbus Center, a glitzy $160 million research facility and tourist attractionnow under construction in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Dr. Colwell has been the chief science adviser on the project. "I'm very committed to completing the tasks that we have here," Dr. Colwell said.

MBI has been under fire from some within the UM System, who say its research budget would be better spent on teaching, and from some business executives who say the institute has been slow to produce results.

Even while running MBI, Dr. Colwell is doing her own research into the origins of cholera and has retained a tenured teaching position at the University of Maryland College Park.

State Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said that Maryland was fortunate to keep Dr. Colwell.

"I do know she is a highly recruited scientist and administrator," Mr. Rawlings said. "It would be regrettable if we lost her."

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