The regents' reductions

October 21, 2004

WHEN ACADEMIC leaders decide to kill trees (the laser printer their lethal weapon of choice), the result is predictable: reams of bulky reports with lofty ambition destined to gather dust in the offices of college presidents. But the latest exercise in self-evaluation from the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents is not cut from this cloth. With a few exceptions, its report to the General Assembly's fiscal leaders on E&E (efficiency and effectiveness, pardon the expression) is a pretty fair analysis of the system's need to contain tuition, accommodate rising enrollment, and generally make the system's 11 schools do more with less. Ambitious stuff, yes, but the surprise is that the regents have come up with a number of ideas that are worthwhile and pragmatic.

Of course, there is foolishness here, too. Unless campuses are overpopulated by John "Bluto" Blutarsky clones who, like the character from Animal House, are partying their way through a seven-year degree, it's hard to explain a proposed tuition surcharge after the first 120 hours of credits. One would have thought recent tuition increases would have weeded out the slothful. And speaking of lazy, how about those professors? The regents want to see them take on a higher course load - a classic penny-wise approach. There may, in fact, be a real problem here, but it would be foolish to make sweeping judgments about faculty based on one measure. How much savings can be found there is also debatable - certainly not a big chunk of the proposed (and exceedingly ambitious) overall goal of $26.6 million.

The academic community will raise plenty of fuss about the sillier ideas (potential mergers involving the University of Baltimore certainly qualify). They won't get much traction in the legislature, either. But most of the report is smarter than that. It makes sense, for instance, for schools to purchase supplies, services or utilities collectively where possible. Indeed, why not explore more opportunities for student learning off campus? Why not question administrative processes and organization? One thing about higher education - it doesn't change easily, or willingly. A little shake-up is deserved. And while more centralized authority isn't the answer to the system's ills, it's quite possible that opportunities are lost when schools aren't working in concert, or even thinking along those lines.

Still, the greatest value in this exercise is that the regents can now sincerely report to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. that all cost-saving opportunities have been explored ad nauseam. Now, they can tell him, the time has come for the state to invest more in higher education. Cutbacks have forced a nearly 30 percent tuition increase in recent years, and next fall could bring another double-digit hike caused by higher costs for health care, energy and salaries. That's too much. Better to invest in our most precious economic asset, our children's education, than let the state system descend into a collection of cut-rate colleges. As policy, it's O&O - obvious and overdue.

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