Of real estate and higher learning

Towson house: Termites aren't all that's wrong with the university president's new residence.

March 14, 2002

WHETHER OR NOT the schools that constitute the University System of Maryland win their battle to squeeze some additional funding out of next year's tight state budget, one fact is clear. Thanks to Towson University, they've already won two dubious achievement awards: the first for bad judgment, the second for terrible timing.

Just as Chancellor Donald N. Langenberg and a handful of university presidents went on the road last week to drum up support in Annapolis and elsewhere for Gov. Parris N. Glendening's proposed $31 million budget increase for the university system, news broke about the newly purchased home for use by Towson's president.

Last summer, Towson officials bought the $850,000 house in Baltimore's tony Guilford neighborhood. They said the house was in good shape and was an investment in the university's future. Last week, those officials admitted to having spent nearly $600,000 more in renovation and furnishings, including termite abatement and a $25,000 entertainment system.

Didn't they have the house inspected for termites before they bought it? That's what most would-be homeowners do. And just how entertained does a university president have to be? More to the point, was this a wise expenditure by the school?

In retrospect, it looks foolish at best, as Towson officials poormouth to the legislature, hoping, with leaders from other state schools, for at least that $31 million boost in funding. Indeed, while they were trying to explain the rationale behind the house purchase, the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee was adopting a recommendation to slash the governor's proposed increase to -- nothing.

Chancellor Langenberg and Towson's president argue that the house is needed to enhance future fund raising for the school, and is therefore a long-term investment. There may be something to that -- though it seems highly unlikely -- and it may have sounded like a good idea last summer.

But what university officials are overlooking is the symbolic value inherent in the purchase, renovation and furnishing of what some have called a "mansion" now that times are bad, tuition is going up, and the state is skimping on programs for the genuinely needy.

Nevertheless, it's important now for state lawmakers to bear in mind that Towson's misstep should in no way impede the hard-fought progress made by Maryland's institutions of higher learning. They should give Towson a lecture on stewardship and give the university system the money to operate effectively in the next year.

That may not mean giving the universities as much money as they want; in fact, it almost certainly doesn't. But -- and here is where genuine long-term thinking comes in -- it does mean giving them enough to cover their contractual obligations, maintain faculty levels and sustain academic programs.

The public universities of this state have made great strides toward becoming nationally known academically and well-respected in the world of scientific research. That burgeoning reputation should not fall victim to a fluctuating economy and a too-tight budget. Adequate funding is vital -- because that, not a pricey entertainment system, is what real investment for the future is all about.

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