Grading the university system Schools: As Maryland's bTC network of public colleges turns 10 years old, system officials and outside observers assess its performance.

The Education Beat

July 29, 1998|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

WITHOUT A whole lot of fanfare, the University System of Maryland turns 10 this month.

Donald N. Langenberg, chancellor for eight of those years, blew out the symbolic candles and issued a report "celebrating a decade."

The system -- 11 campuses, an environmental science center and a biotechnology institute -- formed in 1988 with the marriage of the old state college system and the University of Maryland.

Morgan State University and St. Mary's College in Southern Maryland, the other two public schools in Maryland, opted out.

Here, based on interviews this week with Langenberg and several observers in and out of the system, are questions and consensus answers about USM at 10:

Creation of the system was supposed to promote efficiency. Has it?

Yes. "Every man for himself" is no longer the prevailing philosophy. The system forced each campus to think about why it was established and where it was going.

Some duplication continues, but schools have accepted their missions. They're no longer trying to be all things to everyone.

As a result, the state blessedly has two or three fewer business schools than it might have had.

Who benefited most -- the large schools such as College Park or the small schools such as Coppin State College?

The small schools.

Overnight, Coppin became the organizational equal of UMCP, 10 times larger. Leadership of the system has protected Coppin with the same zeal it has protected College Park, a fact of life that doesn't sit well in Prince George's County.

As a result of this, there's been talk of College Park and the University of Maryland at Baltimore "going independent" like Morgan and St. Mary's. What are the prospects of that happening?

At the moment, most of the talk is coming from Prince George's politicians, and it was fanned by the departing College Park president, William E. "Brit" Kirwan, who was given a splendid pulpit on his way to Ohio.

But being in the system has many advantages, even for College Park. Though the presidents jostle for position at the budgetary feeding trough, they're not so viciously competitive as they were before the system was created.

Besides, as UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski points out, with the baby boomers marching through higher education in the late '90s, there's no need to compete for students -- at least for now.

But there is a need to compete for private support?

Yes. A problem inherent in the system's $700 million fund-raising campaign is that the campuses are knocking on the same doors for individual, corporate and foundation support.

It's particularly the case in Baltimore, where a dozen public and private colleges seek donations from a shrinking number of home-owned corporations -- and where Johns Hopkins University has more connections than Bell Atlantic.

That would be the case, however, whether or not the University System of Maryland had been formed.

One thing the system has done is force the campus leaders to become much more entrepreneurial. In fact, the presidents are evaluated in part on how well they do that job, and they've had to give up educational leadership to concentrate on fund raising, much to the chagrin of a few of them.

But aren't Morgan and St. Mary's envied because they can go right to the top in Annapolis without having to coordinate everything with the "system"?

They're still envied, but not as much as they were a few years ago. St. Mary's struck a deal that protected its budget during the early-decade recession, but the deal doesn't look so rosy in the good times of the late '90s.

How about the system bureaucracy? Isn't it bloated?

It's one of the smallest in the nation for a system of Maryland's size. The entire staff of the USM headquarters in Adelphi is about 95, compared with more than 1,000 in some states.

That's for a system of 25,000 employees and a budget in excess of $2 billion.

If you want to see bureaucracy, go to the campuses. Langenberg estimates that about a third of system employees are in administrative jobs. He says that's roughly the ratio in most states.

Has the system changed some of the things that never made sense?

Nope. There are still two law schools 10 blocks apart and two Eastern Shore campuses 10 miles apart. UMBC is 20 minutes from College Park, but it's no longer trying to be College Park.

Bottom line: Has there been academic improvement over the decade?

Generally, the campuses are more selective in admissions -- and therefore more academically competitive.

This is particularly true of College Park, which had to cut back on enrollment and become more selective to earn its "flagship" title.

Pub Date: 7/29/98

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