The vision of UMBC's Hooker

July 11, 1999|By Barry Rascovar

MICHAEL K. Hooker never got the credit he deserved. He played a pivotal role in the Baltimore region, setting the stage for state government's new love fest with public universities.

But while at the helm of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (1986-1992), Mr. Hooker was viewed as a publicity-hungry empire builder, with cockeyed notions of the university as the prime mover in a new economic order.

Time proved Mr. Hooker right. Indeed, he laid the philosophical foundation for the state's current drive to marry academic research and economic development.

Mr. Hooker, who died June 29 at 53, left his mark on three major university systems in Maryland, Massachusetts and North Carolina. His most impressive contribution: His vision of higher education in the 21st century.

It was largely due to Mr. Hooker that the Baltimore area recognized the advantages of focusing growth efforts on the technology revolution. Back in 1986, such a revolution was more speculation than reality.

He saw the Baltimore-Washington region as "one of the cornerstones" of the biotechnology future, drawing strength from research centers at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda; Johns Hopkins University and the three University of Maryland research campuses in Baltimore, Catonsville and College Park.

Now, everyone sees the links. Even the governor and legislators are beginning to put substantial resources into University of Maryland research efforts.

"This is the world of the future," he said early in his UMBC tenure. "In an information economy, all the decks will be reshuffled. This is flying in the face of academia, in the face of academic culture, but change is in the wind." On another occasion, he noted that "the economy is shifting in character . . . In the future, knowledge will be the fuel rods of economic activity."

That's why he repeatedly talked of technology as the vehicle that could propel the Baltimore-Washington region.

He said he was building "a new model of a public university that was intimately joined with economic development of the region that it serves."

At UMBC, undergraduates do hands-on research; brilliant minority students are recruited and mentored; incubator and emerging technology companies find a home; a new research park will enhance UMBC's marriage of learning and technology enterprises.

UMBC is now recognized as "A powerhouse in Baltimore" (Newsweek magazine). That's the legacy of Mr. Hooker and the man he recruited and mentored, UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski.

Mr. Hooker failed in one key area: a merger of his campus with the University of Maryland's professional schools downtown. Enormous synergies could have been gained. But jealous officials on other campuses and the blind parochialism of state Senate President Mike Miller, College Park's biggest protector, won out.

That setback helped speed Mr. Hooker's departure, first to the University of Massachusetts, then to the post of chancellor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In each place, he pushed his vision of a new breed of university. As the provost at North Carolina said at his funeral, "Mike was audacious -- visionary enough to believe that we could be the best public university in America . . . No one dared to really believe that before Mike came here."

Mr. Hooker also understood the pivotal role that state government can play.

North Carolina is a leader in university research and spinoff economic development. Its governors and lawmakers have invested heavily in higher education. Even now, legislators are on the brink of passing a $3 billion college construction bond issue.

Maryland's construction budget for its universities this fiscal year: $151 million.

Here's what Mr. Hooker told Chapel Hill: "We've the economy we have today because we have invested in the university. It's not just because God loves us that North Carolina is leading the transition from an energy-based economy to a knowledge-based economy . . . We've well served the taxpayers of North Carolina."

So have the University of Maryland's three research campuses, though with far too little help from the politicians in Annapolis, who only recently have recognized the university's vast potential. They are finally embracing Mr. Hooker's vision.

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor.

Pub Date: 7/11/99

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