First, Maryland had to get an attitude

Change: The key was a state decision to try to have a university system as good as any in the country.

March 03, 2002|By Donald N. Langenberg | Donald N. Langenberg,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ON APRIL 30, I will step down as chancellor of the University System of Maryland (USM), a post I have held for nearly 12 years. I'm often asked about the most important changes in the USM during my tenure. There are many ways to demonstrate the system's progress since its creation in 1988: record numbers of applications and enrollments; world-class research facilities; higher national rankings; increased success in competing for research grants and contracts; and enormous growth in private support, to name a few.

The list of visible, quantifiable changes is long. However, I believe that the most important change is more subtle and less visible. Yet without it, none of the system's many successes would have been possible. This change is as simple as it is profound - Maryland has changed its attitude toward public higher education.

For several centuries, the state's view of public higher education was ambivalent. Unlike many other states, ours wasn't sure it wanted - and was willing to pay for - a strong public university system. That changed decisively in 1988 when the General Assembly created the USM, bringing together 11 degree-granting institutions and two research institutes, and established for it a remarkable goal.

The legislature decreed that the system was "to achieve and sustain national eminence with each component fulfilling a distinct and complementary mission."

In short, Maryland decided that it wanted a university system as good as any in the country. This attitudinal change of the state's body politic - political leaders, business leaders, parents, students and taxpayers - has been the driving force behind USM's phenomenal achievements.

Some observers dismissed the legislature's mandate. In fact, not long after I arrived in 1990, I heard a legislative leader tell an audience that Maryland simply could not afford a first-rate university. The recession that hit soon thereafter made me worry that he might be right. During that recession of the early 1990s, the system's state appropriation was cut by nearly 20 percent. The severity of those cuts could be seen as a sign of the state's continued ambivalence about the importance of higher education.

The recession tested the new system's ability to survive. To the surprise of many, it did. When the economy rebounded, it was time to test the state's resolve: Was the goal of national eminence real or rhetoric? The governor and key legislators answered that the goal was real, and Maryland began making significant investments in USM institutions.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening and the General Assembly made it clear that they believed in the goal of national eminence, were willing to invest in it, and expected results.

The results have been astounding. In 1991, only one program of our flagship university, the University of Maryland, College Park, appeared on any top-25 lists, such as the U.S. News and World Report annual rankings. Today, 61 of its programs are in the top 25 of that and other rankings. It is joining the ranks of the best research universities in the country.

In the U.S. News ratings, Towson and Salisbury universities are ranked among the top 10 public, master's level universities in the Northeast. Last year, Frostburg State jumped an entire tier, from tier three to tier two, in the rankings of its peers in the Northeast. The University of Maryland, Baltimore's professional schools have steadily advanced, with two ranked in the top 10 nationally.

USM institutions are among the nation's top producers of minority graduates: Bowie State University graduates more African-Americans with master's degrees in computer and information science than any other university in the nation; Coppin State College is No. 4 nationally in graduating African-Americans with bachelor's degrees in mathematics; Towson University ranks fifth nationally in African-Americans earning master's degrees in the English language/literature/letters category; the University of Maryland, Baltimore is first nationally among traditionally white institutions in awarding first-professional degrees in all disciplines combined to African-Americans, and in the top 10 for all minority students; and the University of Maryland Baltimore County is first in the nation in producing African-Americans with chemistry and biochemistry degrees.

The University of Maryland University College is today the largest and most successful virtual university in the nation, perhaps the world. The University of Baltimore's fully online master of business administration program ranked as one of the best such online offerings in the nation. The University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science have become world leaders in their respective research areas.

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