Politics upset regents' realm

Some on UM board question actions by Glendening

Speculation over top job

March 07, 2001|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

The Board of Regents of the University System of Maryland is usually a fairly placid body given to discussions of capital projects, campus budgets and curriculum revision.

But during the past few months, it has been involved in an unusual series of public disputes that have led to accusations that politics is exerting an undue influence over the board's decisions.

The criticism has been focused on Gov. Parris N. Glendening and includes speculation that he is constructing a board that will hire him as chancellor when he leaves the governor's office.

"The regents today don't function in the same way the regents did in the '70s and '80s when I served before," says Joseph D. Tydings, the former U.S. senator who has been appointed by three governors to three different boards and has served on the current version since July.

"Then, the regents were never pressured politically in their important decisions by the governor or any other state official," he says. "They were free to exercise their best judgment in the interests of the university system."

Glendening spokesman Michael Morrill says the governor does not apologize for his involvement in the state's universities.

"The governor cares passionately and deeply about higher education," Morrill says of Glendening, a former professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Maryland universities have never ranked higher, which is a testament to a governor who comes out of higher education."

Board Chairman Nathan A. Chapman Jr. says the regents have a good relationship with Glendening.

"I believe our board is an independent-minded body that considers the right thing to do for the university system in any decision we make," he says.

The dispute dates to last year's attempt by some board members to force Chancellor Donald N. Langenberg to step down -- a move that was opposed by Glendening. Langenberg will retire next year.

Last month, many regents said they believed the governor pushed the board into endorsing a bill allowing collective bargaining for the staff of the university system. That move was publicly opposed by Tydings and fellow regent Clifford M. Kendall, both of whom testified at a legislative hearing on the bill, an unusual break in the normally solid front presented by the regents.

"I would say the collective bargaining episode runs counter to my experience with the Board of Regents," says Sen. Robert R. Neall, an Anne Arundel Democrat who heads a budget subcommittee that oversees higher-education spending. "The decision to support [collective bargaining] was a political decision, not a university governance decision."

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat, agrees. "You have to be careful the regents don't lose their independence, or the public may lose faith in the regents," she says.

Morrill says the governor did nothing wrong. "The governor made very clear he supported collective bargaining," he says.

But Del. Robert L. Flanagan, the House Republican whip and a member of the House Appropriations Committee, criticizes Glendening's actions.

"I think the governor has been using strong-arm tactics with the Board of Regents," he says.

The issue arose as recently as yesterday during a teleconference meeting of the regents called to consider supporting Glendening-backed legislation that would raise the goal for the percentage of state contracts going to minority businesses to 25 percent.

Regent Louise Michaux Gonzales argued that the board should not weigh in on legislation that is not directly concerned with education. She proposed a substitute measure -- eventually adopted by the board -- supporting the goal of the legislation without endorsing the specific bill.

"I do have a concern with the politicization of the Board of Regents," student regent Kevin Oxendine, a junior at the University of Maryland, College Park, said in the meeting. "We are getting involved in more and more legislation in Annapolis."

Lurking in the background is speculation that Glendening wants the $300,000-a-year chancellor's job when his term ends in 2003 and that he is lining up a board of regents that will support him.

He recently appointed three longtime supporters to the board. Oxendine's successor -- Saleem Rasheed -- was seen as another potential vote for Glendening should he seek to become chancellor. Glendening is known to have discussed that position and other post-gubernatorial possibilities with members of the General Assembly.

Morrill says Glendening does not have his eyes focused on that job, but did not rule it out.

"He is on the record that his future plans most likely will be involved in the environment or education," he says. "That could be anything from going back to being a professor to running a university to getting involved in a higher education advocacy group."

Morrill says those ambitions have no bearing on whom he appoints to the Board of Regents.

Sun staff writer Thomas W. Waldron contributed to this article.

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