Critics say colleges need budget lesson

Maryland system called reluctant to cut back

Tuition increases challenged

December 13, 2003|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

When the University System of Maryland was hit with deep budget cuts in the early 1990s, its flagship campus at College Park slashed an entire school, seven departments and 29 under-enrolled degree programs.

Confronted with another budget crisis this year, the university has cut just two majors - while tuition has shot up more than 20 percent.

Officials at Maryland's public universities are battling a perception that they haven't done enough to reduce spending and are instead balancing budgets on the backs of students.

"I don't think the university system has done anything to lessen some of the exorbitant costs we've seen there," said Del. Warren E. Miller, a Howard County Republican who is co-sponsoring a bill to limit tuition increases.

System officials counter that they are doing their best to absorb a 14 percent cut in state funding. They have laid off 161 employees at the 11 colleges, eliminated hundreds of vacant jobs and trimmed spending on everything from journal subscriptions to infirmary hours. Cutting more, they say, would be detrimental.

"The idea is to maintain the quality at all costs," said Clifford M. Kendall, chairman of the system's Board of Regents.

But so much money has poured into higher education in the past decade, critics say, that the universities ought to be able to achieve deeper savings. Even with recent cutbacks, total system spending - state funding combined with tuition revenue - has grown 76 percent since 1994, to $1.5 billion. That compares with 59 percent growth in the entire state budget.

As the governor and some legislators weigh proposals that would force colleges to curtail spending by capping tuition increases, supporters and critics alike say the system needs to look at several areas for fundamental savings:

Under-enrolled programs. Unlike the early 1990s, the system has resisted cutting under-subscribed majors or departments. At the University of Maryland, College Park, the only majors cut this year have been human resources and nuclear engineering. Closing more of the school's roughly 110 majors would imperil academic quality, officials say.

Every year the regents receive a list of low-productivity programs at each campus, but rarely do they shut any down. This year's list included communications studies at Frostburg State, a biochemistry master's at College Park, and a physiology master's at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

Cost vs. mission

Former regent Edwin S. Crawford says the three research universities should reconsider whether all of their new advanced programs are worth the cost and suited to their mission. College Park lists nearly 150 research centers or institutes on its Web site; its non-teaching researchers and deans earn nearly as much combined as full-time teaching faculty.

"They have not, in my opinion, said, `Let's go back for an assessment of all the programs we've added in the last 10 years,'" Crawford said. "These research programs are damned expensive."

System officials counter that researchers each bring in, on average, $200,000 in grant money. But there are costs, too. Yesterday, regents approved $6 million in science equipment for the research campuses.

Executive salaries. Critics say the system should cut the number of top administrators and their salaries. A study by The Sun in March found that the combined salaries for officials in the top 10 positions at the College Park, Baltimore and Baltimore County campuses increased 41 percent since 1998. The average salary of those 30 administrators is $233,000.

System officials say many of those increases were not raises for existing employees, but the result of luring talented people for open positions. And they say the system's salaries are not far out of line with those in other states. Administrators earn more, on average, than about 70 percent of officials in comparable jobs elsewhere and less than the other 30 percent.

"They're saying, `We're pigs, but there are pigs all across the country,' " said Del. Kevin Kelly, an Allegany County Democrat. "I find it offensive that that's their defense." If the system is unable to retain administrators at lower salaries, he said, then it should let them leave and hire cheaper replacements.

Staffing levels. Officials justified this year's tuition hike, in part, by saying they would take other drastic steps, including mass layoffs. At the June meeting where regents approved a 22 percent increase for College Park, President C.D. "Dan" Mote Jr. said the school would still have to lay off up to 300 support staff.

But a few weeks later, the school's provost announced that he had a $10 million reserve that would minimize layoffs - money not mentioned at the tuition vote. In the end, the university laid off 77 employees. The campus newspaper, The Diamondback, later reported that 18 of those workers were hired back for other campus jobs.

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