UM system addresses itself with diplomacy

Though in College Park, headquarters uses Adelphi label to avoid favoritism

February 23, 2004|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

It is one of the great curiosities of Maryland higher education, right up there with that extra "s" in Johns Hopkins:

Just where, exactly, is Adelphi?

Adelphi is the impressive-sounding address of the University System of Maryland, invoking all the wisdom and authority of a Greek oracle. Administrators and faculty at 11 campuses refer to orders from "Adelphi" the way State Department staff speak of "Foggy Bottom" or the CIA refers to "Langley."

As it turns out, though, the Adelphi address is somewhat of a fraud, if a well-intentioned one. And its invention is a telling tale of the emphasis that higher education often places on perception over reality.

The university system's offices are on Metzerott Road in the city of College Park, half a mile from the system's largest campus, the University of Maryland, College Park. Yet the system lists its home as Adelphi, a loosely defined, unincorporated area adjacent to College Park.

When the large, white-brick office building was built in 1979, its location was a sensitive subject. It made logistical sense to place the office near the fledgling system's main campus.

But officials worried that might be seen as favoring the College Park campus over the smaller schools that comprised the rest of the system at that time: the University of Maryland campuses in Baltimore, Baltimore County and the Eastern Shore.

The solution? While current and former system officials can't say for sure how the "Adelphi" tag came to be, their best guess is that the system adopted it to make it seem as if its headquarters was somewhere other than College Park - no matter what the geographical reality.

The ruse was easy enough to execute. The system simply had its mail routed through the Adelphi post office. That office closed about a dozen years ago, and a system employee now drives eight miles each day to pick up mail at the Langley Park branch of the Hyattsville ZIP code - but the system still gives its address as Adelphi.

Donald N. Langenberg, who served as the system's chancellor from 1990 to 2002, said that "any parent with more than one child" can understand the logic behind the creative address.

"If it is clear when you speak of your children that you speak of a favorite son or daughter and the rest think they don't matter, this is not good," he said.

John S. Toll, who preceded Langenberg as chancellor, says the Adelphi tag may have had a more practical explanation, too: to avoid confusion with the university in College Park.

"If you mail something from College Park, everyone assumes it's from the University of Maryland," said Toll, now the president of private Washington College in Chestertown. "If you mail something from Adelphi, everyone knows it's from the system."

The inaccurate identifier has stuck. It is used more widely now, because the system was reconfigured in 1988 to include all but two of the state's 13 public four-year colleges. Today, Adelphi has become almost more of an idea than a real place, a bureaucratic abstraction of the higher authority invested in the 100-person office.

This appropriation of the name amuses those who are familiar with the actual Adelphi. The area consists mainly of modest, mid-20th-century housing developments and a beleaguered shopping strip on University Boulevard. It overlaps with other unincorporated neighborhoods such as Langley Park and University Park.

Deborah James, 86, who has lived in Adelphi for 50 years, says it has little cohesive identity. Aside from an annual holiday potluck dinner, she said, there is little to bring residents together.

"We used to be very much a community years ago - we had a homemakers club, we did decorations for Christmas, old-fashioned kind of stuff," she said. "But the community sense is pretty much gone."

The system's use of the Adelphi mailing address is particularly ironic, James said, considering that the area lost its post office on University Boulevard about 1990. The ZIP code used both by Adelphi residents and the system, 20783, is now assigned to the Hyattsville post office. James uses Hyattsville as a return address to avoid mix-ups.

The system's creative geography also surprises residents of College Park Woods, a subdivision directly adjacent to the system offices on Metzerott Road. Ed Moore, who moved to the neighborhood 10 years ago, couldn't understand why the large building next door would use an Adelphi address.

"That's kind of weird. This is all College Park," he said. "It beats the hell out of me why" the system claims otherwise.

Less amused is the mayor of College Park, Stephen Brayman, who sees use of the Adelphi name as part of a deliberate attempt by the system to disassociate itself from his city. The university itself no longer uses the College Park tag in most official references, he notes.

And the system's distance-learning branch, the University of Maryland, University College, has also adopted an Adelphi address, even though it, too, sits within College Park, on the edge of the UM campus. UMUC officials say they took the Adelphi name to ease mail delivery.

Peter A. Shapiro, a Prince George's County councilman representing the Adelphi area, was more understanding. If the system wants to claim to be in Adelphi for reasons of perception, so be it, he said.

"It's pretty crafty," Shapiro said.

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