Higher education in turmoil -- II College Park: State's flagship campus has not been given sufficient funds to compete.

December 14, 1998

WILLIAM E. "Brit" Kirwan left Maryland a frustrated man. For 34 years, he taught at and then helped run the state's largest public university at College Park. He had aspirations of propelling his campus into the top rank of public research universities.

He got precious little help in pursuing this goal.

College Park receives 40 percent of state funds allotted for Maryland's 13 public colleges and universities. Yet governors and state legislators have not acknowledged this elevated status at budget time by giving the university higher percentage increases.

Likewise, governing boards have refused to treat College Park differently. When Mr. Kirwan tried to start an exciting high-tech training program last winter, members of the Maryland Higher Education Commission called him "elitist" because he had not shared this program with the other campuses in the system.

Only after Mr. Kirwan announced his resignation last January -- to take the president's job at Ohio State University -- did political leaders increase College Park's budget $24 million. Even that move generated controversy. Other universities in the system complained of an "end run."

College Park's plight caught the attention of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. He is campaigning to pull the campus out of the statewide University System of Maryland and make it semiautonomous, similar to Morgan State University and St. Mary's College.

A task force led by retired Naval Academy superintendent Adm. Charles R. Larson is examining the governing setup for the University of Maryland campuses. Two outside studies it commissioned concluded that College Park deserves better treatment and more automony, though neither expressed enthusiasm for breaking up the system.

Compared with peer institutions, College Park is badly underfunded. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill receives nearly $6,000 more per student from its state government than does College Park.

Closing the gap between College Park and its peers would require an additional $164 million in state aid over the next three years.

As a public research institution -- with nationally ranked programs in physics, engineering, business, environmental science, math, education, public affairs and criminal justice -- College Park's mission is far different than that of other Maryland schools. Yet it competes with comprehensive public universities for scarce dollars as though their roles were the same.

For instance, College Park's libraries require expensive research journals to serve programs that produce 95 percent of the state's doctorates. That's not recognized at budget time.

Nor is the campus' need for higher salaries to recruit the brightest professors from better-regarded peer institutions.

Over the past 10 years, state funding increases for College Park have averaged about the same percentage as those of other schools in the system. How can a flagship campus compete with the Chapel Hills and Berkeleys when it isn't given the funds to do so?

How can College Park compete when it has little control over its budget, capital projects or new programs? It is required to waste time and money filing duplicative reports for Annapolis and the two governing boards. We do not favor independence for College Park. That would create a new set of obstacles for the campus while stripping away the substantial benefits of remaining in the university system. A better option would be to give College Park enhanced flexibility.

At the same time, budget allocations should be weighted to recognize College Park's defined mission. Other campuses deserve tailored budget treatment, too, especially those with heavy research activity.

With more than 32,000 students, 2,400 full-time faculty members and a total budget of $778.5 million, College Park has much to offer the state as an economic development and technology leader.

The state must liberate the campus from bureaucratic limitations. Political leaders must recognize their responsibility to make Maryland's flagship campus truly first class.

Tomorrow: Baltimore's troubled campuses.

Pub Date: 12/14/98

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