Get what you pay for

January 30, 2001|By James L. Fisher and James V. Koch

NICE, BUT THE 14 percent budget increase proposed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening won't solve Maryland's public higher education problems.

Maryland's main problem is structural, not financial; it's the system itself. Dating to the Curlett Commission in the 1960s, one Maryland task force after another has devised new higher education designs, each of which has resulted in more institutional constraints and additional costs to the taxpayers. None has worked. Maryland still has a generally mediocre reputation in public higher education.

Let's look at some uncomfortable relationships: Compared to other states, public higher education in Maryland is not badly funded. But, in terms of quality, Maryland public higher education rarely measures up. For instance, neighboring Virginia, with a lower per-capita income, devotes a smaller proportion of its tax revenues to higher education and spends nearly 10 percent less per student. Pennsylvania also allocates a lower percent of its tax revenues to public higher education.

Yet Virginia boasts nationally renowned, highly competitive institutions such as the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and William and Mary, as well as impressively developing comers such as James Madison, George Mason, Old Dominion and Virginia Commonwealth.

Pennsylvanians are justifiably proud of Penn State, which often is cited as a "Top 25" institution, while state-related universities such as Pittsburgh host a dozen or more academic programs ranked in the top 10 nationally. Both are members of the prestigious American Association of Universities, which in Maryland only includes Johns Hopkins University.

How can Maryland receive a higher rate of return on its higher education tax dollar?

It should eliminate the University of Maryland system and eliminate or dramatically reduce the heavy-handed bureaucratic regulation of the Maryland Higher Education Commission.

Each public institution should have a separate governing board to allow for institutional uniqueness coupled with a higher education commission or outside consultants charged to patrol in the general public interest. We believe that as much as $50 million could be saved (and reallocated to priority needs in higher education) by adopting this design.

Throughout the years, state higher education planners and most elected officials initially have found the seductive logic of centralization attractive. But today there is abundant evidence that strong state systems have not worked and states are beginning to abandon or modify them.

In New Jersey, former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman simply eliminated the state chancellor system and, structurally, four years later, things have never been better. Indeed, there is a negative correlation between the scope of a state's higher education regulatory bodies and the reputation of its institutions as reported in national surveys such as that published by U.S. News & World Report.

Lewis Mayhew of Stanford University said, "I defy anyone to show me the value of the University of California system with hundreds of employees when comparing the quality of Berkeley and the University of Michigan where there is no state system at all."

Often when seeking new college presidents, search firms go to dispirited staff in California, New York, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, etc. In Maryland, top administrators, particularly at College Park, have left because of the oppressive system.

Maryland needs to emulate the academic and budgetary freedom it has extended to Morgan State University and St. Mary's College if it wants to close the quality gap, although it must be noted that even these relatively autonomous institutions are frustrated by state officials who behave from these outdated notions.

Maryland must break the existing mold and pursue a strategy that will actually save money and at the same time allow the potential for institutions to become truly extraordinary. Without structural changes, a whopping 14 percent budget increase will simply amount to more muscle in a straight jacket.

James L. Fisher is president emeritus of Towson University and professor of leadership studies at the Union Institute. James V. Koch is president and professor of economics at Old Dominion University.

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