Academia watching race for governor

Higher education leaders wonder what to expect from winner in tight times

Campuses fearing budget cuts

September 29, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

In better times, Maryland's public college and university leaders might take little notice of the governor's race going on outside their ivy-covered walls.

But not now. With the state facing a $1.7 billion deficit and its campuses fearing that they're on the front line for cuts, the state's higher education officials are watching the race to replace Gov. Parris N. Glendening with mounting worry, unsure of what to expect from the two candidates.

At the same time, the state university system is the subject of increasing attention from gubernatorial candidates looking for ways to balance their budget plans and to rid the university system's highest ranks of what they see as unacceptable cronyism.

Forget about the ivory tower. Right now, the state's campuses are more like straw huts in the path of a storm.

"We're all anxious about both the economic situation, the numbers we're seeing and the relative priority that the two candidates are placing on higher education," said William E. Kirwan, the state's new universities chancellor. "Some level of cuts is surely inevitable, and what we're really talking about is the magnitude of the cuts."

Regent Joseph D. Tydings was more blunt.

"You know we're going to get hammered. We were hammered in the '80s and '90s, and everyone's bracing for it again," the former U.S. senator said.

When Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. described last week how they would close the budget gap, both made clear that higher education would be among the options for savings.

The 11-campus university system, which includes all public schools except Morgan State University and St. Mary's College, received $870 million in operating funds this year and is requesting $38 million over that figure next year.

Townsend's plan calls for an increase of $26 million.

Ehrlich's plan does not set a figure for higher education savings. But in a meeting with Sun editors last week, he answered a question about the budget gap by saying he would need to set priorities - and that his priorities, unlike Glendening's, were not higher education and the environment.

Although neither has proposed large cuts for higher education, that doesn't reassure campus officials, who know the candidates are avoiding talk of specific cuts for fear of losing votes. What worries officials are the pressures the candidates will face if they win: Higher education is tempting to those balancing the books because it is the budget's largest chunk of discretionary spending.

10% of general fund

The allocation for Maryland's public four-year campuses has grown to about 10 percent of the state's general fund. Spending for kindergarten-to-12th grade education is higher, but the state is required by its constitution to fund those schools adequately, a protection not afforded to higher education.

One top administrator who asked not to be named said system officials are "terrified" that cuts could surpass $100 million.

"We're a sitting target," said Robert L. Bogomolny, president of the University of Baltimore. "There's no way we or anyone else can manage cuts like that without very substantial tuition increases."

Fueling the campuses' worries is the imminent exit of Glendening, the former University of Maryland professor whose support is credited with speeding the recent rise in the system's national reputation. In the three years before this one, the system enjoyed average funding increases of 12 percent every year - the largest cumulative increase in the country during that period.

The state's campuses also benefited from an unprecedented burst in construction, including new performing arts centers at College Park and Morgan State, a new law school in Baltimore and a palatial student center at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore.

With the campuses so visibly thriving, university officials fear the next governor and lawmakers will assume the system can absorb big cuts better than other areas - or will even target higher education as a way to undercut Glendening's legacy.

"There is a perception among some legislators that higher ed has been `taken care of,'" said Salisbury University President Janet Dudley-Eshbach.

The university system received a signal last week of changes to come in the State House's approach to higher education when Townsend proposed revamping the selection of system regents. Instead of appointing her friends to the board, as she suggested Glendening has done, Townsend said she would have regents nominated by a new screening panel.

Observers said the proposal was a shrewd attempt by Townsend to separate herself from Glendening, though it was not without risk. Townsend's running mate, Adm. Charles R. Larson, is himself a regent, and, as one former administrator noted, Ehrlich could ask why Larson let the board's alleged cronyism flourish so long.

In addition, warned former regent Edwin S. Crawford, the proposal could reduce the universities' sway by producing regents with no ties to Annapolis.

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