Closing higher education's involvement gap

February 22, 2004|By C. Fraser Smith

IN AN ERA of robust grass-roots democracy, supporters of public higher education have been content with a desert. While other interest groups hit lawmakers with increasingly sophisticated issue campaigns, advocates of brain development in the young have satisfied themselves with silence.

In the early 1990s, when recession undermined a new commitment to quality colleges and universities, big whacks at campus budgets were endured with scarcely a whimper.

Former state legislator James C. Rosapepe, a University System of Maryland regent, found the absence of outcry then remarkable.

"I got more calls and letters from constituents concerned about animal rights than I did about the budget cuts at College Park," he says, "and I represented College Park. God bless the animal-rights proponents, but it's embarrassing that with 35,000 students and 10,000 faculty and staff and people living all over the College Park area that you didn't hear more." Then and now silence in the face of big budget cuts reveals "a certain gap in civic involvement," he says.

And the gap persists at a cost to students, to businesses and to the quality of life in Maryland. Unless there is more opposition and the imposition of a budget-cutting firewall, Mr. Rosapepe says, recent gains in quality will be lost and deserving Marylanders won't be able to afford what Maryland has offered: access to quality higher education. Tuition increases in the last two years have made Maryland the sixth-most costly university system in the nation. By fall, tuition and mandatory fees at College Park are projected to be 39 percent higher than two years ago.

The state's continuing financial crisis puts pressure on every state program, but colleges and universities have been almost uniquely targeted and unable to defend themselves, Mr. Rosapepe says.

"When (budget makers) get in a crunch, it's easy to cut the university system. And there's always the argument that, `Well, they can always raise tuition.' And they do," he says.

Mr. Rosapepe has become one of the most outspoken advocates for building legal moats around the campuses and manning them with unhappy voters. He's heading a citizen's committee that is being supported by State Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp and Comptroller William Donald Shaefer. With between $100,000 and $150,000, they're working to form a higher education lobby similar to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Health Care for All and PETA, the animal-rights group.

The task, he says, is "changing the paradigm: organizing people who care about public higher education. That's what you do in a democracy. You stand up for your own interests. If you don't, nobody else is going to stand up for you."

There's a five-step agenda: restoring the $80 million cut in recent years from campuses; capping tuition increases; mandating in law a minimum platform of support per pupil for the university system; continuing to help the historically black campuses catch up to their white peers, and pursuing ways of operating the campuses more efficiently. ("Any contention that higher education doesn't need belt-tightening has a high hill to climb," Mr. Rosapepe said.)

Support for these policy adjustments is reflected in the early legislative support for bills now pending in both houses of the Assembly. House Speaker Michael E. Busch and state Sen. Brian E. Frosh of Montgomery County have filed bills that cover many of the concerns of the new group, which calls itself the Marylanders for Access to Quality Higher Education.

The key point, Mr. Rosapepe says, is the cap on tuition increases. That action is needed to reverse what amounts to an undiscussed reversal of the state's historic commitment to higher education. The erosion of that commitment -- via budget cuts and tuition increases -- flow from the gap in civic involvement.

Mr. Rosapepe's exercise in small "d" democracy may be belated, but it has a head start on groups that had to create their grass-roots concern. Concern for higher education is there, but it needs a little watering -- lobbying, debating and reminding voters of values they want to preserve.

"The fundamental reason for state support of undergraduate study is to keep tuition down. That's the point. Sure you could totally privatize and have Ivy League-level tuition. But the point is to have quality institutions that average families can actually afford to send their kids to," he said.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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