Morgan's monopoly ignores marketplace

September 24, 2000|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Once again, Morgan State University has won the battle--but it could be losing the war.

Morgan succeeded recently in pressuring rival University of Maryland, Baltimore County to drop its request for a major in electrical engineering. Morgan will remain the only public university here offering such a degree.

The northeast Baltimore school also fended off bids by two other public universities to add graduate programs it already teaches. So Morgan will keep its monopolies.

But it is a Pyrrhic victory. Morgan hasn't really gained anything, except deepening the animus between itself and other public schools in the Baltimore region.

While state higher education leaders and legislators are preaching cooperation. Morgan insists on playing the Lone Ranger.

While other schools recognize they must pursue their education objectives in a highly competitive, Internet Age environment Morgan wants exclusivity, as though that will make the difference.

It won't. Morgan has picked the wrong strategy at the wrong education time. And in the process, it is distorting the intent preaching of civil-rights efforts to open public college campus to students of all races.

Morgan is caught in a time warp. It is a school of 6,000 students, nearly all of whom,are black. It wants to stay that way.

It has support from a peculiar place - the U.S. Office of Civil Rights. Instead of pushing Morgan officials to set integration as a priority. the federal agency wants the state to maintain the status quo.

The mindset is that by safeguarding Morgan's exclusive majors such as electrical engineering. white students will naturally gravitate to Morgan.

It hasn't worked, though.

Morgan, which went into decline after other public colleges opened more fully to minority students, has made impressive progress in the past 15 years. State support has soared. Much of the campus has been rebuilt. SAT scores have risen. It is drawing more students from other eastern states.

But it's not on a par with UMBC a rising star in higher education. UMBC is a mecca for bright students, especially in science and technology. Its Meyerhoff Scholars program and support services draw top minority students to its Catonsville campus.

Morgan can't compete for these Einsteins. It caters to a different brand of student.

The problem is that it aspires to be much more. It wants to bu the star of public higher education in this area. That's unlikely to occur.

Morgan is the region's only public college outside the University System of Maryland. It retains its independence at a steep price. In higher education circles, it is becoming isolated.

This coincides with dramatic changes in the delivery of a college education. Students have so many choices and enormous mobility. They aren't tied down by geography any more.

On-line courses from hundreds of colleges and for-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix are gaining popularity. Community colleges offer soIid academic courses at bargain prices. There is also a wealth of private colleges and other public university within a few hours drive.

So Morgan may retain its monopoly on electrical engineeing but students can take those same programs at Johns Hopkins or at UM's College Park campus, or go on-line. Or they can opt for closely related courses in computer sciences at UMBC.

Nor will Morgan's program monopoly ensure success in integrating its student body.

Today's Internet Age rewards institutions that show flexibility and agility in responding to a fast-changing world. Villa Julie College, in the Greenspring Valley, is a prime example of an agile school that stays on the cutting edge of the academic skills market. As a result, its enrollment exceeds projections.

The marketplace does not reward universities that are slow to change or resist competing with other colleges for students.

Morgan has used fear of "program duplication" to help retain sole possession of degree-granting programs. These days, though, monopolies are "out"; cooperative program-sharing and diversification are "in." Competition no longer is viewed as an evil.

The marketplace determines the fate of universities, not rulings from state boards or federal bureaucrats who twist court decisions to fit their political agendas.

More than ever, a college education is a fungible commodity: Students can obtain it in variety of ways. Univex-sities must learn to adjust. Those that seize this opportunity will flourish; those that i-ely on government strictures and outmoded operating models could find the future more perilous than the past.

Barry Rascovar is duputy editorial page editor.

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