Gov. Parris N. Glendening has turned to the man credited with restoring the Naval Academy's reputation to perform what may be an even more difficult task: leading a task force charged with determining whether Maryland should reshuffle or break up its decade-old system for running its public colleges and universities.
Retired Adm. Charles R. "Chuck" Larson, who left the academy and the Navy in June, said he's got "an open mind" on the fate of the University System of Maryland, which has been accused by critics of stifling the initiative of the schools it oversees.
Supporters counter that centralizing control of the state's colleges and universities has helped eliminate wasteful duplication.
"I'm coming at this from ground zero," Larson said, "but I'm working hard to come up to speed."
Larson, who took over as superintendent in 1994, was credited with leading a turnaround of the Naval Academy after several scandals involving midshipmen.
The 40-year Navy veteran will take the helm of a potentially fractious 23-member task force selected by the governor and legislative leaders.
The panel, which includes 10 lawmakers and four university presidents, includes defenders and critics of the current system.
The task force was created by the General Assembly this year after William E. "Brit" Kirwan, longtime president of the University of Maryland, College Park, resigned in January and took a public swipe at the university system.
Kirwan, who left College Park to become president of Ohio State University, complained that the state's flagship campus gets shortchanged when its budget requests are lumped in with other schools.
The University System of Maryland oversees all but two of the state's 13 four-year colleges and universities.
Morgan State University and St. Mary's College successfully lobbied the legislature to remain outside the system and retain their ability to raise funds and operate independently.
"Our goal is to make the higher education system in Maryland, and the flagship University of Maryland, College Park, the finest in the nation," said Glendening, a former political science professor at College Park.
Lance W. Billingsley, chairman of the University System Board of Regents, said he welcomes "an objective look" at his board and its staff.
Billingsley contended that the biggest handicap faced by the state's colleges is not bureaucracy, but lack of state funding.
"The issue is how much money is the state of Maryland willing to invest in higher education," Billingsley said.
By several measures, Maryland's funding for colleges and universities trails other states.
With the state's economy booming for the first time in several years, the governor and legislators increased funding for higher education by $53 million this year. They raised College Park's share by $7 million after the popular Kirwan's resignation prompted a lobbying campaign by the students and the Board of Visitors.
But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a College Park supporter, made it plain said he believes the system is flawed, and more money alone is not the answer.
"I'm hopeful that once all the information has been presented to them," Miller said, "we can find out why we're not competitive with certain schools in Virginia, with certain schools in North Carolina or Michigan, and why our goals of 10 years ago have not been realized."
Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat, suggested that breaking up the system might free the colleges to raise more money from private donors.
"We have nowhere to go but up," he said. "The legislature's not going to stand for mediocrity."
Pub Date: 8/12/98