Unfulfilled potential

May 30, 2004

THE LONG-FESTERING turmoil at Baltimore City Community College, which forced out its reform-minded president last week, exposes a need for greater accountability.

BCCC is Maryland's only state-sponsored community college, giving its board of trustees relative independence compared with its peers. But what good is autonomy if power is squandered by infighting, micromanaging and broken trust?

The price of power struggles between the former president and the board is lost momentum.

The Abell Foundation reports on two years of attempts at academic improvement: "BCCC's administration has taken big risks and implemented bold initiatives, all with the best intention: to benefit BCCC students. Issues of strategy, style and politics, however, have consistently obstructed that goal and threatened student progress."

The greatest tragedy is that BCCC's students can least afford such unnecessary setbacks. More than a third come straight from city public schools; nearly all arrive unprepared for college-level work. Fewer than a quarter of them are bound for four-year colleges, and most are training to fill shortages in allied health and other service fields.

In a city where nearly a third of residents have never finished high school, BCCC must remain an oasis of promise and possibility. Its mission is crucial to the city's work force and economic future.

Now, new leadership is needed, not just in the presidency but on the nine-member board of trustees. Though many promising reforms have been launched, including a separate college division for remedial learners and a health careers initiative linking BCCC to area hospitals, the present board has been distracted from its priorities. As the trustees and the president failed to meet many of their pledged goals, internal relations soured. The trustees began usurping their president's authority.

But BCCC's problems won't be solved simply by naming new appointees. The problem is a lack of oversight: The board of trustees is accountable to no one. By law the governor appoints the trustees, but tradition grants the courtesy of nominating to Baltimore's General Assembly delegation. BCCC's president sits on the mayor's Cabinet -- but the school has been state-run since 1990, and the state provides most of its $76 million budget. The Maryland Higher Education Commission monitors BCCC's progress but cannot change its governance. Other community colleges, dependent on local funding, must answer to their communities: To whom does BCCC answer?

Lawmakers need to reorganize the community college so its management is accountable to city and state authorities.

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