University system in need of repair

August 31, 1998|By Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.

MARYLAND'S STUDENTS, their parents and all Maryland taxpayers should have the full story on the success (or lack thereof) of the operation of the University System of Maryland (USM).

Many concerns have been raised regarding whether the current University System, established 10 years ago, is operating in the best interest of students or Maryland's institutions of higher education. As a result, the General Assembly has adopted legislation to establish a task force to study the governance, coordination and funding of the system. That group, headed by Adm. Charles R. Larson, will start work in a few weeks.

First, the University System of Maryland as constructed does not work in the best interest of the students or of Maryland's institutions of higher education. We can do better. Many systems across the country have been drastically reformed since the creation of the Maryland system.

Maryland needs to reform its system as well, or it will collapse under its own weight. For example, for nearly a decade, USM has hindered program development at its constituent institutions. Private institutions in the state as well as out-of-state institutions have offered programs to Marylanders that are not available at the state institutions. The system has not been able to keep up with the demand for programs.

The USM has become a regulator rather than a developer of the institutions, often pitting institutions against each other and dividing the state into educational regions. Dr. Donald N. Langenberg and other education officials have said that small schools have benefited most from the creation of the USM. This is true and is a point of success, but small schools should not improve at the expense of the larger ones. Unfortunately this is the case. That was not our intent when the system was established.

Institutions outside the system also have benefited significantly.

Morgan State University and St. Mary's College are exempted from the system because of their needs and locations. Their success suggests they were appropriately excluded from the system and illustrates problems with the operation of the USM. In academics, finances and programs, they have flourished while many of the USM institutions have not. This is one of the reasons why several institutions in the system have concerns about its operations and have asked to be excluded from it.

To test our system, we should look at how Maryland institutions compare nationally. Unfortunately, no USM institutions rank in the top tier of peer institutions nationally. This is a major problem and a testament to the fact that the system is not working. If we are striving for national eminence, we are not doing very well.

Moreover, the funding structure of the USM has been untenable and unfair. The University System receives its revenue primarily from two sources -- tuition and state appropriations. The distribution of those revenues, particularly between research functions and educational functions, has caused much grief among institutions.

The result of attempting to divide a limited pool of money among all of the students has been to create marked disparities and few areas of excellence.

There certainly are major concerns about how revenues are distributed among the institutions. The General Assembly adopted legislation this year to ensure that an appropriate level of funding is provided for higher education over the next five years by setting appropriation goals based on percentages of annual state revenues.

Dr. Langenberg and others in the higher education community have also said that the bureaucracy can be seen at the campus level. Actually, the USM has created duplicate functions with the constituent institutions, the Maryland Higher Education Commission (MHEC) and state government. The result is overlapping bureaucracy, which has proven to be costly and turf ridden, and inhibits innovative and timely program and research changes. It can take 10 years to construct a building, two years to start a new program, and a year for many policy statements to be finalized.

Staffs and offices at the campus level are duplicated at the USM level, and the work of the constituent budget, facilities and planning offices are reviewed and often revised by both USM and MHEC. If the private industry in Maryland had to work this way, our local economy would be in shambles.

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