No one should want this job

Tough: Running the University System of Maryland is dealing with an ungainly creation that wars with itself.

December 09, 2001|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

THE JOB of chancellor of the University System of Maryland always looked like an odd fit for anybody accustomed to being in charge -such as a governor like Parris N. Glendening, considered the leading candidate until he withdrew last week.

On paper, it looks great - $340,000 a year and a wonderful mansion, Hidden Waters, on Old Court Road in Baltimore County. Its occupant gets to pontificate on issues of higher education while leading one of the hottest systems in the country. The University of Maryland, College Park is soaring in the rankings, and other campuses - particularly University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Salisbury University and several schools at the University of Maryland, Baltimore - attract favorable national publicity.

But look closer and the picture's a bit more complicated. Sure, a governor might have to contend with the state legislature on one side and voters on the other, but compare that to coping with 13 college presidents, each of whom assumes he or she is the boss, a Board of Regents that likes to let you know it is the boss, the Maryland Higher Education Commission that now and then is the boss - as well as legislators, alumni, students, parents and all sorts of constituency groups.

More than 30 states have some sort of system for their colleges and universities.

Gordon K. Davies, who headed the coordinating body in Virginia from 1977 to 1997 and now does the same in Kentucky, says they emerged after World War II when more money was being poured into higher education.

"As higher ed became a huge part of the state budget, legislators and governors needed rational systems as ways to make decisions," he says. "If we didn't have these systems, we would have to invent them."

It is not as if Maryland had a blank slate when it drew up the current system in 1988. That was the case in California where the hierarchy of schools is clear; the universities - Berkeley, UCLA, etc. - for the top high school graduates, the state schools - Fresno, Long Beach, etc. - for the next tier of graduates - and the community colleges for the bottom half of the class.

In Maryland, there has always been a wide variety of college and universities doing a wide variety of tasks, each developing its own constituency of alumni, supporters, friend and enemies. By 1988, essentially two systems existed in the state: the University of Maryland that governed all the campuses with that in their name - College Park, Baltimore County, Eastern Shore and Baltimore - and the group of the old teachers colleges that included all the schools with "state" in their names - Towson, Salisbury, Frostburg, Coppin, etc. The new University System merged the two with the gubernatorial-appointed Board of Regents overseeing the result.

It has been said that a camel is a horse made by a committee. This system resembles a camel that had gone through the same process, the next generation of ungainly complexity.

Part of the deal was that any school that wanted could stay out. Morgan State and St. Mary's did just that. They have prospered but can be loose cannons - St. Mary's setting its own tuition and attracting some top students; Morgan blocking competitive course offerings by system schools. The University of Baltimore stayed in the system, although it has always been an odd fit, a private school taken over by the state in the 1970s and made to provide the last two years of college for community college grads. It came complete with law and business schools.

Look at it this way: If you were designing a university system for Maryland, first you would not put the state's two law schools a mile apart, the distance between the University of Baltimore and the University of Maryland law schools. You also wouldn't put two schools on the Eastern Shore a dozen miles apart, six schools clustered in Baltimore and only two near Washington. Why exactly was UMBC created in the mid-1960s? If Baltimore needed a College Park-type school, too, couldn't Towson or Morgan have been modified to fill the bill? Only Western Maryland's Frostburg State - founded by miners so their kids could have teachers and find jobs above ground - makes complete sense.

Maryland did one other odd thing in 1988. It kept intact the Maryland Higher Education Commission. This is a coordinating body - not a governing board - charged with making sure the state's money and needs are taken into account when colleges and universities create programs. In some ways, the commission was still necessary because it puts private schools, the community colleges and the two schools not in the University System of Maryland into the mix. But it also creates another level of bureaucracy that can be frustrating. And it makes Maryland one of the few states to have both a coordinating body and a university system. Most have one or the other.

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