College Park aspires to join elite

U. of Maryland sights still set high after a decade of striving

January 11, 1999|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

In 1988, the General Assembly gave the University of Maryland, College Park an assignment -- grow into one of the top public universities in the nation.

A decade later, after a fall full of meetings by a task force studying the state's system of higher education, the legislature will again consider legislation with that same goal.

Many point to funding failures and bureaucratic handcuffs as keeping the state's flagship institution from rising to the level of its "aspirational peers" -- esteemed public universities like the University of North Carolina, University of Michigan and University of California at Berkeley.

FOR THE RECORD - A front-page article yesterday about the University of Maryland, College Park was accompanied by a photograph wrongly identified as that of Clayton D. "Dan" Mote Jr., president of the university. It was instead a picture of Hoke Smith, president of Towson University. The Sun regrets the errors.

"College Park absolutely hasn't made progress. There's been a leveling off," said Thomas V. Mike Miller, the Prince George's County Democrat and state Senate president who is considered the campus' most powerful ally in the legislature. "That's why we had the task force."

Others, at College Park and elsewhere, think the campus has improved greatly over the past 10 years, but gets little credit for its progress -- in large part because Maryland has no heritage of pride in its public colleges and universities.

"We are Maryland, we are not Virginia or North Carolina or Michigan," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat who helped write the 1988 legislation and a key member of this fall's task force.

"We are a state with a tradition of strong, prestigious private institutions, like Johns Hopkins. That's not true in those states," she said. "You have to remember, it wasn't that long ago that about anyone who graduated from high school could go to College Park. That's not true any more, but it takes time to change those perceptions."

Patricia S. Florestano, state secretary of higher education, agreed. "Under [former president William E. Kirwan] the school made incredible strides over the last 10 years," she said. "People in the state are actually less aware of that than people outside the state."

On campus, administrators point to the rise of programs like the engineering school. A decade ago, it hardly made the charts when such schools were ranked. In 1994, it was ranked 37th.

This year, the influential U.S. News & World Report rankings of graduate programs puts it 13th in the country -- sixth among public schools -- tied with Northwestern University and Princeton University and well ahead of the Johns Hopkins University in 21st place.

Lofty goal

"I think we can make it into the top 10," said William Destler, the dean of engineering, who has been at College Park since arriving as an assistant professor in 1973. He has taken a six-month leave from that post to head fund raising for the university, hoping to help the College Park campus achieve the kind of success the school of engineering has.

Destler and others enumerate the strong schools and departments at College Park; engineering, business, computer science, physics, mathematics, economics, journalism, education, criminology, government and politics, sociology, history and English are usually mentioned. The undergraduate honors program has received national acclaim.

On almost everybody's list, the top priority for strengthening is the biological sciences.

"You really can't be a top research university without strength in the life sciences," said school President C. D. "Dan" Mote Jr., who came to College Park in September after a career at Berkeley.

"We have to pick areas to build on where our strength is," said Provost Gregory L. Geoffrey. He explained that the university plans to have highly regarded faculty in engineering and computer science design academic programs that can be applied to the biological sciences.

"It's easier to get good people to come here when you are already good at something," explained Destler, whose new fund-raising job is the same one Mote, also an engineer, had in the administration at Berkeley before he came to Maryland.

There is general agreement that College Park's strength is uneven in the humanities and social sciences, and Destler wants to build a nationally recognized public policy program that takes advantage of the proximity of Washington.

He is confident that this can be done, in part by showing donors that underwriting an endowed professorship with a gift of $1 million or $2 million could have a major impact.

"There are places where we are just one or two people away," Destler said, referring to departments in need of faculty members. "The donors have to know that we can pull this off. Nobody wants to give money to a loser."

New attitude needed

Many at College Park say that the most important change will be in attitude.

"In Electrical Engineering where I came from, we developed a culture so if we were interviewing for a faculty position, we would only talk to Ph.Ds. from the top 10 institutions," Destler said. "A lot of other parts of the university don't have that kind of culture."

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