A campus `on a tear'

Success: It's only fitting that as the University of Maryland's stature as an academic institution soars, its basketball team should reach new heights as well.

March 29, 2001|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

Research money is rolling in at unheard-of levels. A beefed-up faculty is set to welcome its first Nobel laureate. More students with better grades are fighting to get in.

Oh, and the basketball team's doing OK. There's a big game this weekend.

The University of Maryland, for years a largely faceless institution that accepted any Marylander with a high school diploma, is reaching new heights - on the court, as many now know, and in the classrooms and laboratories, as many may not.

Says university President C. D. "Dan" Mote Jr.: "The place is clearly on a tear."

On a tear, he says, when you consider that the average GPA for incoming freshmen has increased by three-quarters of a point in barely a decade, to 3.87, while SAT scores for new students are rising 10 to 20 points a year. Research dollars coming into the university have more than tripled, to almost $300 million, in a decade.

There's the recent $10 million donation to the university's journalism program. There's the honors program that wins over students with visions of the Ivy League, and the new performing arts center to woo the artistically inclined. A new basketball arena befitting a Final Four team is under construction.

And just this week, came the dedication of a research lab for advanced computer technology - to be run in tandem with Fujitsu Laboratories Ltd., one of the world's largest information technology companies.

"This company could put its research lab anywhere in the world," Mote says. "It could go to MIT. It could go to Princeton. It could go anyplace it wants, but it's elected to come here."

The battle cry of Maryland's basketball team may be "Fear the Turtle," but Mote likes to say, "The state and this university are bound at the hip." He means the health of the state's flagship university is crucial to Maryland's economic future - especially in the emerging technological fields.

State officials seem to be listening. They've authorized nearly $300 million in construction for the campus in recent years. The university's operating budget has increased by more than 10 percent in each of the past two years, and Gov. Parris N. Glendening proposed this year a 14 percent increase.

Glendening, a former professor at the university, says: "It's great excitement to talk about the Ravens winning the Super Bowl and the Terps winning the national championship. But the real key is we're winning the race with regard to science and technology for the knowledge-based economy, and College Park is the flagship in that race."

Earlier this week, with the men's basketball team just days away from its first appearance in one of America's top-shelf sports events, there was not a lot of visible Terp mania in College Park. With a pep rally still a day off, students at College Park seemed more concerned with the business of learning.

Yes, the book exchange on U.S. 1 advertised Final Four T-shirts. A car parked in front of Cole Field House sported a Terps flag and "Go Terps" smeared on its rear window.

But while the Terps practiced in Cole before an audience of about 50 fans - who were library-quiet until Lonny Baxter slammed home an alley-oop - a pianist and tuba player painstakingly rehearsed a duet in the new Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center's recital hall. In the campus student union, the dining area was packed but no one wore the team colors.

Greg Minah said many students, just back from a week of spring break, were consumed by midterm exams. The 23-year-old Columbia man is a basketball fan - and, at that moment, an art theory student with a midterm in less than an hour.

"People are just waiting for the weekend, when all the fervor surrounding the basketball team will get going," he says.

For his part, Mote is opening many meetings this week with a few words about the Final Four. He's wearing a lapel pin with the familiar, mock-scary turtle. Nobody asked, but he dismissed the idea that athletic achievement can't exist beside academic excellence.

"We beat Stanford to get into the Final Four. No one's complaining about Stanford's academics these days. We're going to play Duke next time. No one's complaining about Duke's academics," he says. "It's just a reality of life that these things are captivating. You can't fight it. You have to enjoy it."

Maryland's Final Four appearance before a huge television audience will, if past performances at other schools hold, prompt a spike in an already growing and competitive applicant pool.

"Everybody wants to be part of a winning team," Mote says.

But some, like Maynard Mack Jr., remember a different University of Maryland. When he came to Maryland from Harvard 26 years ago to teach English, the school's image was, he says, "clearly mediocre."

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