Where are the champions for UM?

August 31, 1997|By Barry Rascovar

MARYLAND IS missing the boat when it comes to public higher education. This has been going on for decades.

Even when University of Maryland President H.C. ''Curley'' Byrd was a political power in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, the university's pride wasn't academic prowess -- aside from a prodigious building program -- but a national football champion.

Much has changed since then, thanks to the scholarly bent of Byrd's successors, Wilson H. Elkins and John S. Toll. Classroom quality has risen dramatically.

Yet these improvements came with only grudging support from state government. No one since Curley Byrd has had the clout to deliver the funds necessary to turn UM into a pre-eminent public university system. Governor after governor has eagerly put money into new buildings, but not into the operating funds that might make UM second to none.

Legislators hesitate to pour new tax dollars into university enhancements. The return on investment isn't easy to see. Neither are the political rewards.

That's why state education funds for K-12 increased $168 million this year, but higher education received only $23 million more. There are far more votes linked to local schools, with 800,000 students, than to a university system with 80,000 students.

University leaders reluctantly accept this reality. Instead of lobbying for massive new aid, they settle for the crumbs.

Case in point. William E. ''Brit'' Kirwan, president of UM's flagship College Park campus, railed in a recent letter to the editor about a passing reference in my column last week to a ''big pay raise'' planned for state workers. He took offense at calling that wage hike -- which will go to College Park employees, too -- ''big.'' Well, the dollar increase next year will amount to nearly $100 million -- that's big. But Dr. Kirwan is looking at the percentage increase -- roughly 2 percent -- not so big.

But this misses the bigger picture. A cost-of-living increase doesn't move College Park into the top ranks of public universities. To do that would take a far greater state commitment. Yet there is no campaign at College Park to make it happen.

Chancellor Donald N. Langenberg, who runs the 11-campus system, and Lance Billingsley, who chairs the system's board of regents, are loath to criticize the governor for failing to provide UM with the money needed to become truly first-rate. They say they ''understand'' the financial binds that dictate very modest new investments. And so public colleges have raised tuition substantially in recent years.

Who's really to blame?

When the latest round of hikes was announced, Annapolis pols were quick to criticize. Yet who's to blame for these tuition increases, if not those same politicians? Higher tuition flows directly from the lack of new state aid. Since 1990, state aid as a percentage of total higher-education support dropped by 27 percent; to compensate, public colleges raised tuition 23 percent.

To his credit, William Donald Schaefer tried in the late 1980s to boost higher education. But after two years of bountiful budget increases, the recession forced him to give up. Over the next two years, higher-education aid decreased $105 million. No effort has been made since then to dramatically enhance quality at the University of Maryland. Annapolis never gave UM a promised $141 million to elevate its academic stature.

Spirits soared when Parris Glendening, who taught at College Park, became governor. But a weak economy meant that he could pledge to give UM only modest, steady raises to offset inflation. That comes to $21 million this budget year. Not much when split among 11 campuses.

The regents aren't asking for much more next year, either -- a mere $26 million. It won't turn a good university into a great one.

This short-sighted approach by everyone involved keeps Maryland at a disadvantage in its economic-development efforts.

For instance, Ciena Corp. of Linthicum -- one of the hottest start-up companies around -- announced that it won't open a technology-development center in Maryland because of the lack of qualified engineers coming out of local colleges. Those high-paying jobs are going to Atlanta.

Other companies report similar stories. Yet where is the hue and cry from the business community to put university funding at the top of Maryland's priority list? Instead, business' top concern has been cutting the state income-tax rate -- a move that, ironically, will make it harder to boost higher-education aid.

No one, it seems, is championing UM. Sure, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller is hot to ante up state money for a new field house for his alma mater. But where are the prominent corporate or political figures lobbying for a vast new spending plan to make UM the envy of its academic peers? Don't they see the value in such an effort? Or is the political price of crusading for more higher-education aid too high?

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 8/31/97

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