RECENTLY, the Washington Post reported that some Northern Virginia business executives are worried about the lack of a major research university nearby to provide highly trained workers and cutting edge research.
In Maryland, business and government leaders worry about the future of the University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP), its governance and its role in our economy.
Without a doubt, to most citizens, the University System of Maryland is a confusing confederation of 13 public colleges.
UMCP, the flagship campus of the system, is a member of the prestigious Association of American Universities (AAU), which is made up of the top 63 public and private research institutions in the United States and Canada, including such institutions as Harvard and Stanford universities and the University of Michigan.
The UMCP is also classified as a Research-I university by the Carnegie Foundation, an honor reserved for the top 3 percent of research universities in the United States. Indeed, UMCP is the only AAU/Research-I university with headquarters in the metropolitan Washington area.
Yet many people, including Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, and former University of Maryland president William E. "Brit" Kirwan, have argued that, though UMCP has made great strides, it needs to be independent of the current higher education system to develop into a first-rate institution.
They point out that the boards of regents for St. Mary's College and Morgan State University, both of which are public institutions yet independent of the system, are able to directly advocate for their budget needs in Annapolis, something UMCP officials can't do.
Furthermore, these institutions, by the very nature of their independence, gain access to corporate board rooms across Maryland, while College Park's advocacy is subsumed under the bureaucracy of the system.
Clearly there is a problem with the current higher education structure when, after 34 years of devoted service -- including nine years as president -- Mr. Kirwan resigned this year to become president of Ohio State University, a university with its own board.
Mr. Miller's and Mr. Kirwan's concerns, coupled with those of business leaders uncertain how to help their local university, signal that sweeping changes are needed. But does that mean that the University System of Maryland must be dismantled?
There are several strategies that we should consider that would maintain the current system while simultaneously advancing the state's goal of building a pre-eminent research institution in College Park. Here are several suggestions:
We need to better recognize the diversity in size and mission of our state's colleges and universities. Just like in Annapolis, where the larger counties wield influence based on the size of their delegations, the university system will need to find ways to give a more proportionate voice to UMCP, with its 40-percent share of the higher education budget.
Free Maryland's public colleges and universities from the yoke of state procurement and budgetary red tape. A few years ago, Virginia gave its colleges and universities greater flexibility to spend its private dollars. Maryland should do the same to help insure efficiency and cut costs.
Better leverage our research grants and contracts. Many states allow their public universities to retain all of the indirect overhead charged on research contracts. To develop the state's research infrastructure and spur greater technological development, let's change our state's budget policy and allow the research overhead not currently being retained by the institutions to be used for financing new capital equipment, building telecommunications networks and constructing and renovating research labs.
Let UMCP create its own fund-raising office to help increase its endowment and cultivate business relationships. Maryland is a relative newcomer to private fund-raising. But, in recent years, UMCP received two gifts of $15 million from private donors -- the largest gifts given to a public university in the Washington area.
Currently, the University System of Maryland has a multi-institutional foundation managed by a system-wide board of directors. It makes as much sense to have a system-wide foundation as it would to have a system-wide sports booster club or a system-wide alumni association.
Alumni are loyal to particular institutions, not systems. Businesses want to develop relationships with institutions, not systems.
If we are creative, work together and target resources appropriately, we can build UMCP into a prominent national research university that will serve the state and the region.
If we succeed, both the image and reality of higher education for all institutions in Maryland will be enhanced.
We need only look at North Carolina to see what a quality flagship university can do to build the reputation of the state's higher education system.
The last mile on a march to national prominence is usually the most difficult. Let's make certain we don't falter this time.
Del. Mark K. Shriver, a member of the state commission on higher education reform, writes from Montgomery County.
Pub Date: 11/25/98