DON LANGENBERG'S days as chancellor of the University System of Maryland appear numbered. He may keep his job a little longer after a board of regents meeting on Wednesday, but only with unprecedented arm-twisting and intervention by the governor.
That sort of high-handed political interference could come at a steep price, and won't change the outcome: Mr. Langenberg's eventual departure as chancellor.
The regents had unanimously agreed in August to ask Mr. Langenberg to set a June 2001 retirement date. He is too cerebral. He has repeatedly ignored the regents before acting. He's not the sort of outgoing salesman the regents want.
And he committed the cardinal sin of trying to create a six-figure job for an ally, Lance W. Billingsley - a regent and a longtime friend of the governor - without first getting permission from the regents.
But before Mr. Langenberg's "voluntary" retirement could be implemented, Gov. Parris N. Glendening stepped in. He met with regents' chairman, Nathan Chapman, and told him to reverse that action.
This has set off a rebellion within the board, a bitter rift that could do irreparable harm to the University of Maryland.
Governors haven't messed around with university decisions - until Mr. Glendening. He's giving the lame excuse that he wants stability in higher education at a time when he's about to propose a giant increase in state funds.
But the governor knows it's not the chancellor who brings stability to the university system; it's the campus presidents. Mr. Langenberg is almost superfluous - the presidents run their institutions, and the regents set policy.
Indeed, when Maryland changed its university governance system a decade ago, regents had a hard time finding top-notch candidates to fill the diluted chancellor's job. Two or three turned down offers before the selection panel agreed on Mr. Langenberg.
Since then, he's been a quiet bureaucrat but not an effective advocate for the university system in the legislature or with the general public. His job offer to Mr. Billingsley - who had recently steered a big pay raise for the chancellor through the regents - was the last straw. Many regents were livid at this apparent attempt to politicize top jobs in the university system.
Now the governor wants to tell the regents what to do. Some of them feel this places the independence of the governing board - and its integrity - at risk.
Even if Mr. Langenberg survives this week's meeting, he'll be under the gun every time he goes before the regents. This political meddling is giving the University of Maryland a black eye in higher education circles. It makes it tough to recruit top-drawer talent.
After all, who wants to come to a university system where the governor and his allies fill administrative posts and the regents' chairman is told by the governor what to do?
Some regents find the governor's pressure tactics especially unsavory: He's holding a major funding increase over their heads, implicitly threatening to nix the deal unless Mr. Langenberg stays until the governor's term expires.
Why that date? Could it be speculation is correct, that the governor wants to prop up Mr. Langenberg until Mr. Glendening himself is in need of a job? Gaining control of the regents now would come in handy later.
And if dissident regents quit in disgust over Mr. Glendening's power grab, so much the better. Rest assured any newly appointed board members will do as the governor wishes.
Before Wednesday's regents meeting, the governor intends to break bread with board members. Let's not rock the boat, he'll tell them. Let's unite behind Don. For the good of the system - especially when I'm getting ready to hand over all this loot to the university.
It's a sorry situation. The governor seems intent on dictating terms to the regents.
Mr. Langenberg may save his job temporarily, but at what cost to the operation he has run for 10 years? Is that the legacy he wishes to leave behind?
Sometimes, the best course of action is a strategic retreat. At age 68, Mr. Langenberg may already be thinking about a less stressful job. Perhaps it's time for him to take the initiative and announce his own retirement timetable - before full-scale civil war breaks out or politicians start calling the shots on state campuses.
Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.