Townsend calls for change in regents board selection

She says expert panel would make nominations, avoid taint of cronyism

September 26, 2002|By David Nitkin and Alec MacGillis | David Nitkin and Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

In a significant break from her political partner, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend acknowledged yesterday that Gov. Parris N. Glendening has clouded the reputation of the state university system by appointing his friends to the Board of Regents.

Townsend said yesterday that she would change the selection process for regents if elected to succeed Glendening, by creating a panel of experts to nominate qualified board members whose names would be forwarded to the governor.

"You don't want the Board of Regents to be chosen, to have the appearance that it is chosen, solely because it is the governor's friends," Townsend said during an interview with the editorial board of The Sun. "You want to believe you are choosing the best people."

Critics have charged Glendening with politicizing the regents board by appointing allies with few apparent qualifications. The issue reached a climax late last year as the 17-member board - composed entirely of Glendening appointees - was considering naming him to the $375,000- a-year chancellorship of the University System of Maryland.

He withdrew his name amid an uproar over his bid for the job.

Without mentioning Glendening by name, Townsend raised the regents issue during a discussion of whether a "culture of corruption" exists in Annapolis.

The phrase was used two years ago by a judge sentencing an Annapolis lobbyist, and has been picked up by her opponent for governor, Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who is repeating the accusation in television ads.

"I think a lot of questions have been raised," Townsend said. "You [at the newspaper] have raised them, and I think it's very important to bring a sense of order and faith in the Board of Regents."

The lieutenant governor said she has discussed the issue with retired Adm. Charles R. Larson, the vice chairman of the regents board who is now her running mate.

"Kathleen has made a commitment to do this," Larson said yesterday. "It will be up to me to figure out how to do it."

Charles F. Porcari, a spokesman for Glendening, said yesterday that all the governor's appointees believe deeply in higher education.

"The Board of Regents is a panel of dedicated public servants devoted to the maintenance of Maryland's world-class higher educational system," Porcari said. "Chuck Larson is a great example."

Townsend has been a loyal ally of Glendening and reluctant to criticize her patron. But as she campaigns for governor, her prospects have been damaged by her association with a governor who is leaving office with poor job performance marks, polls indicate.

Townsend has repeatedly faced questions about how she will establish an independent identity outside the governor's shadow.

Paul Schurick, a spokesman for Ehrlich, said yesterday that he was "delighted [Townsend] finally sees the light" regarding the governor's selection of regents, but that a nominating panel would not be necessary if governors make responsible picks.

"It's real simple," Schurick said. "Just do the right thing."

Experts on public university governing boards said that states with university regents appointed by governors often contend with allegations of cronyism. But in recent years, they said, Maryland has earned a particular reputation for having a Board of Regents dominated by political considerations.

"In Maryland, I'm afraid you've had a mixed record of appointments by the current governor," said Tom Ingram, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities, based in Washington. "We need men and women who bring a dispassionate set of experiences and values that center on what's best for the people of Maryland - not what's best for the political leadership."

Nationally, only Minnesota and Virginia employ nominating panels to screen state university regents. While a few states elect their regents or have selections shared between the legislature and governor, most allow governors to make all appointments.

"We had a bad story with this, and there are other bad stories around the country," said regent Joseph D. Tydings, a former U.S. senator and Townsend supporter. "This would be an opportunity for her to upgrade the way governing boards are appointed in our state and across the country."

The most widely cited example of the Maryland regents' political bent is last year's search for a new university system chancellor. Last fall, Glendening expressed interest in assuming the post after leaving the State House.

His interest drew criticism from former regents, ethics experts and university donors, who said it was inappropriate for him to be seeking a position filled by regents he had appointed.

After several contributors threatened to rescind large gifts to the university system, Glendening withdrew his candidacy. But speculation that the regents might offer the job to him continued to dog the search, with several potential candidates deciding not to apply because of political undercurrents.

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