No magic solution for improving Md.'s colleges

June 12, 1998|By Edwin Hirschmann

THIS being 1998, it's about time for a reshuffling of the structure of public higher education in Maryland. So it is no surprise that the General Assembly authorized such a task force in its last session and that the members of this task force are expected to be appointed this month.

It has been 10 years since the last reshuffling of our state colleges and universities. Before that came the Rosenberg Commission in 1977, and before that was the Curlett Commission of 1962 or thereabouts. In short, these commissions come with the reliability of the 17-year locusts but with a little greater frequency.

I get that feeling of "deja vu all over again" because I played a role in the last reshuffling. As chairman of the interim Faculty Advisory Council, my job was to protect faculty rights and responsibilities in the new structure, the highlight of which was creation of the Maryland Higher Education Commission and the University of Maryland System (now the University System of Maryland).

We faculty members were cautiously optimistic about the results. Not only was faculty status recognized, but the state had committed itself to trying to build a first-rate university system, we thought.

Upbeat mood

The administrators, headed by University of Maryland President John S. Toll, were also upbeat, feeling that they had a vehicle for an expanded, centralized system of educational resources. So were the state legislators, some of whom felt we could do more with less, through greater efficiency and "eliminating duplication." Why, they asked, did the state need to maintain five separate undergraduate colleges in the Baltimore area?

Why, then, is there so much nagging discontent with results, so much that after only 10 years it needs re-examining? Because nobody really got what they wanted. The truth is -- and I hate to admit this -- we all oversold the people of Maryland on the importance of restructuring as a tool for the improvement of higher education.

The economizers were the first to be disillusioned. In retrospect, one can only snicker at the naive notion that restructuring would reduce expenditures. The budget for the University System of Maryland in the current fiscal year is $1,996,665,299 -- almost $2 billion, including more than $9.9 million to fund the 105 positions at the system's Adelphi headquarters.

Ten years ago the University of Maryland had a budget of $848 million, while the six institutions governed by the Board of Trustees for the state universities and colleges (the other major component in the reformed system) managed with $202 million.

Ten years ago, duplication was elusive among Baltimore-area colleges. Each institution was found to have its own unique role, and it made more financial sense to continue them all instead of eliminating some and accommodating the displaced students elsewhere.

Even efforts at inter-campus coordination and cooperation proved difficult. A specialization theme -- Towson to emphasize fine arts and education, University of Maryland Baltimore County, the "hard sciences," etc., with the others reducing their programs -- ran into so many objections that it was quietly shelved. All that is left are a few small joint-degree programs, which the system encourages and facilitates, and the growing use of "distance learning" (through closed-circuit television).

Administrative dreams of a centrally directed system also died quickly. The two most ambitious planners were Mr. Toll, the first chancellor of the system, and Peter O'Malley, the first president of the new Board of Regents. Both resigned abruptly about a year after the plan went into effect. Since, the programming initiatives have come largely from the individual campuses. "Academic feudalism" continues, with each little baron, duke or countess defending his or her piece of turf.

Faculty illusions lasted a little longer, until the fiscal crunch of the early 1990s, when the state stopped paying them cost-of-living increases, except in election years. Faculty salaries still lag behind most of those paid by comparable institutions in other states, and the powers that be don't seem too worried about it.

Academic peach pickers

There have been significant additions to staff, but most of them are not faculty. My own university, Towson, had budget authorization for 1,390 positions for this fiscal year, 200 more than fiscal year 1988, but only 30 of those additions were permanent faculty: 566 as opposed to 596. (There were also 265 adjunct faculty, which is the academic equivalent of migrant peach pickers and paid accordingly.)

At College Park, there is a considerable body of faculty opinion that the university system is dragging them down, and if they could kick free of it, the campus would take off and soar. At fTC UMBC, many feel they are the ones being held back by the system. Likewise at Towson, and probably elsewhere. This shows a naivete rivaling that of the politicians who thought restructuring would save taxpayers' money.

In short, restructuring of higher education is no magic wand that will solve the problem with three waves in the air.

Well, how then do you build a first-rate academic system?

You do it the same way you would any solid structure -- patiently, brick by brick, plank by plank, bolstering departments and programs and campuses, and letting each do its job. Yes, you spend money.

You hire the best professorial "free agents" on the market and pay them what they are worth. Persuade them that your university is a place where they would love to work, where faculty roles and rights are respected, where they can play an important part in a long-range, up-and-coming program.

Maybe it's happening already. There seem to be a lot of bright young professors around, at College Park and elsewhere. Remember, Harvard and Chicago and Berkeley weren't built in a day.

Edwin Hirschmann is a history professor at Towson University.

Pub Date: 6/12/98

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