Higher Education Folly

June 11, 1995

Gov. Parris N. Glendening says he is a man of consensus, not conflict -- that he prefers to work out problems quietly rather than engage in public controversy. Yet his actions belie his words. In naming a new secretary of higher education, Mr. Glendening chose someone he knows will draw sharp criticism from legislators and leaders within the academic community who worry about tilting more state resources toward the governor's -- and his new secretary's -- old stomping ground, the University of Maryland's College Park campus.

Patricia S. Florestano comes to her new job steeped in knowledge of Maryland's bitter higher education turf wars. In fact, she was in the middle of the most heated conflict, the 1988 fight to revamp the state's governance of higher education. She lobbied strenuously to kill the reform plan on behalf of her former her UM boss, John S. Toll. Legislators who overcame her opposition haven't forgotten Dr. Florestano's efforts.

That alone poses a major hurdle for the new secretary, who must win Senate confirmation. She has powerful enemies in that chamber. Educators beyond College Park also are nervous about the appointment, since they perceive a return to the bad old days when College Park received the lion's share of the state's largess and every other campus and school fought over whatever was left. To them, it does not appear to be a level playing field.

But the governor had his mind set on naming a longtime friend and an insider. The "national" search for top candidates was a charade. The deal was wired from the start.

And yet what Maryland needs is someone from outside the cutthroat world of Maryland higher education to act as secretary and arbiter. Dr. Florestano will never be perceived as impartial because she has such strong connections to College Park and the University of Baltimore.

We are also troubled by the new secretary's blind spot on ethics. She insists on keeping her tenure as a UB professor. That's wrong. She will have a vested interest in helping her old department and campus. How can she even pretend to be impartial? Governor Glendening earlier this year gave up his UMCP tenure because it created obvious conflicts. Dr. Florestano should do so, too -- before she is ordered to act by the state ethics board or the state Senate.

Under Maryland's cumbersome higher-ed structure, the secretary's powers are limited. Having the governor's backing -- as Dr. Florestano clearly does -- is critical. But the clash between the University of Maryland trustees and the Maryland Higher Education Commission, and confusion over their respective roles, poses a continuing conundrum. Government downsizing exacerbates campus rivalries and personality clashes. Unpopular decisions will be required if funds are to be allocated in a way that boosts the quality and reputation of Maryland higher education, rather than simply maintaining a lackluster status quo.

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