Higher education in turmoil -- IV More autonomy: Public colleges must have far more funds and flexibility from governing boards.

December 17, 1998

MARYLAND'S complicated system for governing its public colleges and universities isn't working. It is time to streamline this cumbersome two-level structure.

Instead of two panels with overlapping and often conflicting duties, we need one board -- the Maryland Higher Education Commission -- focusing exclusively on the big picture.

A second board -- the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents -- should oversee activities on its 11 campuses.

Instead of campus presidents frustrated by what one consultant Glendening called an "overly bureaucratic" governing structure, each of the larger campuses needs greater freedom to run its own affairs.

Put simply, the commission should define and coordinate a statewide vision; the regents should focus on how their 11 campuses are doing. And the presidents should be left to run their own institutions.

At the moment, that's not happening. The commission steps over the line and clashes with the regents on management questions. The regents, in turn, micromanage their presidents. Clear dividing lines must be created.

No longer can we afford to have MHEC at war with the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents over funding formulas ** and approval of academic programs or budgets.

Here's what we would like to see:

Education Commission

MHEC should coordinate not only the University System of Maryland but independent Morgan State University and St. Mary's College, the community colleges and the state's nonpublic universities and colleges. It should not be a regulator or manager.

It should lay out a strategic focus for higher education that dovetails with the state's economic and social needs.

Once MHEC establishes a visionary agenda, it should review the results to ensure goals are met. Then it must vigorously lobby the governor, lawmakers and the public for support.

Board of Regents

The regents should focus on overseeing the workings of the 11 campuses that make up the University System of Maryland. They should maintain sole responsibility for specific budget and program approvals.

The regents should set missions for each campus that bolster the university system's agenda.

Regents also must reward risk-taking and support the state's top priorities at its best campuses. That means embracing academic initiatives from the presidents. No more one-size-fits-all mentality.

Campus presidents

Each USM president must have wide latitude to run his or her institution. Especially on the larger campuses, presidents should have a high degree of autonomy.

In return, the presidents have to be held accountable by the regents for their actions and for achieving agreed-upon goals.

These changes must lead to reordered priorities for Maryland's top public campuses:

College Park should be accorded the status and financial support it deserves as Maryland's premier public research university.

The University of Maryland, Baltimore, the state's professional schools campus, must be granted the special funding and operating flexibility it requires as a health-sciences research and training center with enormous education and economic development potential.

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County must gain the resources to grow as a unique campus devoted to science and high-tech training, research and entrepreneurial activity. It also needs adequate support to maintain a strong undergraduate honors and liberal arts programs.

Towson University must have the facilities it needs to be recognized as Baltimore's comprehensive metropolitan university. And the campus needs flexibility to ensure that academic offerings meet the changing economy.

None of this will happen without a new attitude in the Maryland State House. For too long, governors and legislators have failed to see the universities as a priority.

State aid accounts for less than 30 percent of USM's operating budget. At those meager rates, Maryland posts an embarrassing 42nd-place finish nationally in support for higher education based on state wealth.

That helps explain why Maryland residents don't have the option to send their kids to an in-state school of the caliber of a University of Virginia or a University of California at Berkeley.

Equally troubling, Maryland cannot succeed in traditional job growth or in becoming a high-tech center without pouring far more money and attention into higher education.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening has a rare opportunity, thanks to the state's bulging budget, to commit Maryland's surplus funds to public universities.

He can -- and must -- lead the charge to streamline the current two-tiered governing structure for higher education that has created confusion and conflict.

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