ON TUESDAY, the 188 members of Maryland's General Assembly will cast their most important votes on higher education in more than 15 years. They'll be voting whether or not to override the governor's veto of a bill that would begin restoring $120 million in state budget cuts and cap tuition increases at 5 percent a year.
Predictably, much of the debate inside the State House will focus on power struggles between Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the legislature. That's understandable since the bill would, for the first time, create a legislatively mandated funding formula for public four-year colleges.
On our campuses, many students will focus on the bill's tuition cap, halting the two-year, 30 percent spiral of tuition costs that have priced so many middle- and working-class young people out of higher education.
But the biggest reason to override the veto, the one that makes this vote the most important in 15 years, is what it will tell the world - from the biotech executives who rely on the universities' research and graduates to the best students graduating from our high schools to the best professors whom we want to recruit.
In 1988, Gov. William Donald Schaefer and the legislature made a historic decision. We merged the University of Maryland with the state college campuses, designated College Park as the "flagship" campus, and committed the state to making our public university system world class in quality - and affordable to Maryland families.
Since then, the state increased its investment in the University System of Maryland campuses and Morgan State - and the investment has paid off. By 2000, we were funding our state universities at 90 percent of their competitors, still too low but a significant increase since 1988.
The number of "Top 25" academic programs at College Park rose from one to 68. Research grants and contracts jumped almost fivefold to close to $1 billion. And thousands of outstanding Maryland students stayed here, raising the quality of the academic environment for all students at all campuses.
But starting in 2002, the state investment began to be cut - drastically. In just two years, $120 million was slashed from the university's budget, staff was laid off, faculty went unhired and tuition was forced up by 30 percent.
Turning its back on the bipartisan commitment of the last 15 years, the state tried a new direction - down - in state investment in our public colleges and universities. The results are now starting to come in, and they're not pretty.
This year, for example, the College Park campus lost 10 of its top engineering professors to other states. The University of Maryland, Baltimore School of Medicine lost its top three geneticists to Wake Forest University. At Coppin State in Baltimore, where 85 percent of the students come from working-class and low-income homes, hundreds of students were forced to drop out because of tuition increases.
Finally, after rising for six straight years, College Park's average SAT scores of incoming freshmen and the campus' U.S. News & World Report ranking fell this year.
Some attributed the huge cuts to the national economic situation. But in fact, Maryland's economy has been growing, as has its state budget as a whole, while higher education was being cut.
Indeed, in these two years, Maryland's budget cuts for higher education have been the seventh deepest of any state in the nation, according to the national Chronicle of Higher Education. Among neighboring states with which we compete, North Carolina, Virginia and Pennsylvania increased state investment for higher education while Maryland was cutting its own.
This is a "made in Maryland" problem that requires a "made in Maryland" solution. That's what the vetoed legislation is.
It restores recent budget cuts, provides USM and Morgan stable funding over three years and caps tuition increases at no more than 5 percent for those three years. It reestablishes the principle, adopted in the 1988 law, that Maryland is serious about its long-term commitment to world-class, affordable higher education for its citizens.
As Aris Melissaratos, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s economic development secretary, has said, "The priority has to go to education. That is where the intellectual property gets created, that is where the work force gets trained and becomes available. I think that we have got a phenomenal university system."
But for how long? Is Maryland still committed to world-class, affordable higher education for its people? That's the question our legislators will answer Tuesday.
Jim Rosapepe, a regent of the University System of Maryland, represented College Park in the House of Delegates from 1987 to 1997.