Starting over

October 16, 2002

THE RESIGNATION of Nathan A. Chapman Jr. as chairman of the state university system's Board of Regents must be welcomed on two accounts: It promises relief from the embarrassment of Mr. Chapman's professional difficulties and offers an opportunity to relieve the board of gross politics.

Maryland's system of higher education made progress during Mr. Chapman's tenure, but the regents seemed always on the brink of becoming a patronage pool.

Foremost among disturbing incidents was a campaign by Gov. Parris N. Glendening to become the system's chancellor when he leaves the State House. Only the determined opposition of several other regents -- and a threatened withdrawal of private financial support for the University of Maryland, College Park -- blocked that move.

The chairman's resignation and the imminent election of a new governor provide an opportunity to consider a new way of appointing regents. Perhaps a commission might handle that chore, putting the process at an arm's length from politics.

Mr. Chapman's own professional difficulties -- he's being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission -- made matters worse for the regents recently.

Having been given a small slice of state pension funds to invest, Mr. Chapman assigned that money to submanagers, two of whom plowed more than $5 million back into Mr. Chapman's own company, eChapman.com.

With justification, other members of the board worried that references to his difficulties were not good for the university system's image as it tries to recruit the nation's best students, teachers and researchers.

In recent years, regents have had to work hard and make difficult decisions. Those in search of prestigious inside work without heavy lifting were disappointed, but the pace is likely to continue. Maryland's budget difficulties represent a threat to the system's quality and momentum, and tuition increases are being considered. The system must continue to look for ways to help poor and minority students who want a university education.

The university system deserves -- and needs -- the best Board of Regents it can attract. That goal might well be easier to achieve in a less political atmosphere.

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