Re-educating regents

March 23, 2006

What's wrong with this picture? The University System of Maryland aspires to world-class greatness. It demands increasing investment from the state and, in turn, promises to play a growing role in Maryland's success in the global knowledge economy. Members of the USM Board of Regents thus hold among the most prestigious and critical positions in the state - while, in certain cases, hustling for various clients, employers or political interests in one way or another.

Former governor and current regent Marvin Mandel and regents' Chairman David H. Nevins are just the latest board members whose pursuits have triggered ethical questions (despite a 1999 ban on regents lobbying the General Assembly). Regent Richard E. Hug, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s fundraiser, was drumming up money for a pro-slots group. And two earlier board chairmen have had to resign: Lance W. Billingsley, a pal of former Gov. Parris N. Glendening and chairman from 1995 to 1999, because of his lobbying, and his successor, Nathan A. Chapman Jr., because of a scandal that led to a federal conviction for defrauding the state pension system.

This distressing pattern - by some of those called to a very high level of public service - does enormous damage to the university system's reputation. It's gotten so bad that there's talk in Annapolis of the need to assign a full-time ethics counsel to the 17 part-time regents. It may well be time to consider a change from the governor appointing regents to the use of a broadly constituted, nonpartisan nominating committee, much like Maryland uses for judges. A handful of states, the latest being Virginia, use this method, and it's considered a big improvement by the top national university governance organization.

In any case, the University System of Maryland deserves regents beyond reproach. Members of this key state board ought to be so focused on the important cause of the universities that the thought of doing anything that might even be construed the wrong way - and thus sully the system's image - would be simply out of the question. If they can't grasp that concept, they ought not serve as regents.

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