Higher education bill welcomed by state's university officials

School presidents get expanded authority to create programs

April 15, 1999|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

Higher education officials were still going over the details yesterday of the final version of the bill changing the governance of the state's public colleges and universities, but their response was generally favorable.

"We're very pleased," said Hoke Smith, president of Towson University, who was one of the most vocal critics of the current setup.

The bill, which contains most of the recommendations of a state task force on higher education, gives greater authority to the presidents of schools in the University System of Maryland while keeping significant power in the hands of the Maryland Higher Education Commission.

Chaired by Adm. Charles R. Larson, retired superintendent of the Naval Academy, the task force met last fall to study the structure of the state's system of higher education, trying to deal with complaints that regulations kept schools from responding to a changing educational environment.

It recommended that the 11 schools in the University System of Maryland -- those that report to the state's Board of Regents -- be allowed to create programs within their budgets without having them approved by the Maryland Higher Education Commission. This brought strenuous objections from Patricia S. Florestano, the state's secretary of higher education, who runs the commission.

The House and Senate passed different versions of the Larson bill late in the session. A conference committee worked out a compromise version on the General Assembly's last day, but Republican Sen. Robert R. Neall of Anne Arundel County objected that the compromise contained a provision extending collective-bargaining rights to university employees and began a filibuster that succeeded in removing the provision.

Neall was the only member of the Larson task force to attend all of its meetings. He proposed the provision allowing the schools to create programs without the approval of the higher education commission, and pushed for its passage throughout the session.

The final version of the bill allows the president of a University System of Maryland institution to propose programs, but lets the higher education commission or any other school in the state -- public or private -- object to the program within 30 days.

Objections can be raised for three reasons: the proposed program is inconsistent with the school's approved mission; it duplicates other programs in a way that would "cause demonstrable harm to another institution"; or it violates the state's equal opportunity obligations. The higher education commission will have 30 days to rule on objections.

"Shifting the burden of proof to the protesting school should speed up that process," said Smith, the Towson president.

Representatives of the higher education commission and the university system expressed approval for the bill.

"I think it's great," said John Lippincott, the university system's associate vice chancellor for advancement. "It provides the institutions with a higher degree of flexibility."

Pace McConkie, assistant attorney general for the higher education commission, said the bill responded to the commission's objections to the Larson recommendations by giving it final authority to ensure that the schools' mission statements comply with the state plan and to make those statements the key to program approval.

"We feel pretty good about those provisions," McConkie said. He indicated that they should satisfy concerns raised by federal civil rights authorities who feared that lack of state oversight could have led to violations of equal opportunity agreements.

Other provisions of the bill call for a state funding floor of $5,000 per full-time equivalent student -- something Smith pushed for because Towson is below that level -- and make the schools in the University System of Maryland public corporations instead of state agencies. This status frees the schools from many state reporting requirements.

"It will take a while to work that out and see exactly what that means," Smith said. "But it is going to help."

Said Lippincott: "Overall, it is clear that higher education was a priority in this session of the General Assembly. We might look back at this as a watershed year.

"They have given the institutions greater independence and flexibility and funding," he said. "Now we must be accountable and produce results."

Pub Date: 4/15/99

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