A New President and a Hope for Stability at UMAB

September 25, 1994|By DAVID FOLKENFLIK

Becoming the president of the University of Maryland at Baltimore lately is like marrying Henry VIII. You never know how long you're going to last.

Since 1984, eight men have had the top UMAB job.

The first died after a heart attack. A few were only assigned to the job on a temporary basis, officials said. Others became casualties of bitter infighting. One president never even showed up, resigning in 1989 before he took office.

Now comes David J. Ramsay, fresh from the University of California at San Francisco, one of the nation's most prestigious public health sciences centers. The former No. 2 official there for more than a decade, he is considered the perfect match for the $313 million operation at UMAB, a school with a history of vicious infighting.

No one ever said it would be easy. And that's just the way Dr.

Ramsay wants it.

"I love having a group of angry people come in the room with an insoluble problem and then working out a solution -- or have the group work out a solution itself," said Dr. Ramsay, who became president of UMAB on June 1.

Since taking office, Dr. Ramsay has bounded around the downtown campus and the nation's capital, touting UMAB's virtues and promoting the Washington-Baltimore corridor as a haven for biosciences research. The campus has nearly doubled its grants and contract funding in the past five years.

Yet it still has far to go. According to the National Science Foundation, UMAB ranked 58th nationally in total spending on research and development with $107.8 million in 1992; just a short drive away, the Johns Hopkins University rates first with $735.5 million.

Dr. Ramsay said he intends to lead the charge in Washington to secure a bigger slice of the governmental pie for UMAB. In fact, the self-professed political junkie said he finds the raised political profile one of the job's primary attractions.

In San Francisco, Dr. Ramsay found himself confronting opposition to physical expansion of the campus and to medical experiments on laboratory animals. It was Dr. Ramsay who spoke vigorously on the university's behalf, an aspect that appealed to regents here as they searched for a new president for UMAB.

"They've been through a decade of regulatory and political hell" in San Francisco, said University of Maryland System Chancellor Donald N. Langenberg. "You're not looking just for a particularly good paper pusher. You are looking for a leader."

In his engaging, if somewhat elliptical, style, Dr. Ramsay talked recently about where he believes UMAB can make its mark. During a time of relative penny-pinching in Annapolis and Washington, research centers should reach out to corporate sponsors, he said.

"Universities, I think, are getting -- and should be getting -- increasingly aggressive about taking the discoveries that they make and pushing them out there in the commercial sector," Dr. Ramsay said.

As he spoke, the lanky 55-year-old looked and sounded very much like the stereotype of a tweedy Oxford don -- something he might well have become had he not left Oxford University for California 20 years ago to pursue his own research. So Dr. Ramsay's sons grew up in California: one is married and living in San Diego; another attends college in Humboldt State University in northern California.

The British-born Dr. Ramsay, by contrast, spent his childhood bouncing from home to home to avoid the bombing raids of the Nazi Luftwaffe during World War II.

With his wife, Anne, and his aunt, who ran a school outside Manchester where he frequently found himself as a boy, Dr. Ramsay temporarily lives at Marlboro Square apartments, down the block from the campus.

UMAB, on the western edge of downtown, is no university in the commonly understood sense of the word, as it educates few undergraduates. Instead, it maintains professional schools of dentistry, law, medicine, nursing, pharmacy and social work, educating a staggering proportion of the state's doctors and lawyers. The broad array of health-related programs, training midwives to specialists, leaves the university well-poised to anticipate the growing clamor for educating primary-care physicians, Dr. Ramsay said.

Yet the campus' makeup leaves UMAB lacking any true common identity. The law school particularly finds itself an anomaly among the university's other schools, officials there said. And the schools' deans have had a tradition of jealously guarding their turf, observers said.

"It's really a collection of fiefdoms, populated with strong personalities," said Del. Timothy F. Maloney, a Democrat from Prince George's County who heads the subcommittee that oversees the university. "They probably think of themselves less as a campus than any other institution in the system."

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