Where the buck stops

July 29, 2004

ANTICIPATING THE coming General Assembly session, state leaders should be mapping out a management reorganization for Baltimore City Community College. Its immediate need is for strong interim leadership, but its statutory sails also need straightening.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the city's Senate delegation must together ensure that accountability at BCCC will never again be a casualty of clashing egos, misbegotten management or neglectful state oversight.

Why? Because the welfare of the city, state and region increasingly depends on BCCC as the gateway to higher education and employment for Baltimore's young adults. Because increasingly, community colleges are the first choice of students who cannot afford tuition at the state's four-year schools. And because many of the problems in the executive offices at BCCC have roots in Annapolis.

BCCC's unique status as Maryland's only state-run community college gives its trustees enormous latitude, including the power to hire and fire administrative staff and to restrict the college president's authority. In the wrong hands, that independence can be a curse instead of a blessing, as when trustees began hiring and firing independent of the president, reversing some of his decisions. The power struggles stymied well-intentioned academic reforms and revealed weaknesses in the laws governing BCCC.

One obvious way to strengthen BCCC is to ensure that future trustees are more effective leaders. Legislation is needed to depoliticize their selection, which, by tradition, city senators have controlled. They nominate; the governor appoints. Montgomery College has a better process: Candidates are screened by a nominating council whose members are chosen by the county executive, the County Council and the community college's alumni association. Imagine the caliber of nominees who might emerge from a council representing state higher education officials, BCCC's alumni association, the city-state school partnership and the Greater Baltimore Committee.

Also needed in legislation is a clarification of the trustees' and president's powers. Basic lines of authority and approval can be set so that leaders aren't tripping over each other in their zeal to lead.

Most important, BCCC needs an anchor. Its president is a member of the mayor's Cabinet, but the city gave up control in 1990. BCCC operates a bit like a free-standing state agency, generally dislocated from any department or office. In good times, nobody notices. In bad times, it's evident that BCCC is adrift.

The Maryland Higher Education Commission has supplied auditors and advice, but needs legal authority to intervene more directly. There's even some question as to whether the governor can disband a board or unseat trustees if they turn out to be bad choices.

This can best be corrected through legislation that outlines a remedy, rescue or consequence for any crisis of board leadership, extending the authority of the secretary of higher education whenever a board of trustees cannot right its own ship.

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