His mission: move UM into top tier

Q&A -- C.D. `Dan' Mote Jr.



The University of Maryland, College Park celebrated the 150th anniversary of its founding this month, with a mixture of satisfaction at significant improvement in its academic reputation and frustration at failing to move closer to its goal of joining the top 10 state universities in the country.

College Park placed 18th among 162 public universities in U.S. News and World Report rankings published last summer. When the magazine created the ranking system eight years ago, the school ranked 30th.

There is also concern about fast-rising tuition costs that are making attendance at College Park unaffordable to a growing number of middle-class students.

C.D. "Dan" Mote Jr., the university's president since 1998, recently discussed the strides the college has made and what it still needs to do.

You have said that you want the university to join the top 10 state universities in the country. How do you think College Park will get there, and how long will it take?

We have the capacity to get there. Our move up in the rankings has been very substantial, but has been somewhat stalled around 18th, principally by financial issues. But I think the way to get there is very clear. You need to build top-ranked programs and recruit the students and the research enterprise.

One of the indicators where you ranked below your peers nationally was in six-year graduation rates and two-year retention rates. Why is that, and what can be done to change it?

The six-year graduation rate when I arrived in 1998 was 63 percent, and that is extremely low. Our six-year graduation rate should be in the low 80s. ... It should be between 82 and 85. Right now it is about 77 percent, which is, I would say, a phenomenal transformation in seven years - to go from 63 to 77. In two years, we will be at 80 percent.

How did you achieve that improvement?

We [formerly] had a lot of part-time students. ... That is not a bad thing. But in this kind of thing, when you are measuring graduation rates, it looks bad. ... So we have changed our profile tremendously in terms of the types of students and what they are coming here for. They are much more focused on academic issues. A lot more focused on graduate students. So it is not nearly as wide-open and diverse as it used to be.

You say you are a bit stalled in 18th position and that the university can be committed to moving ahead, but unless there is a real state commitment it is not going to happen. Is there a state commitment right now?

We can't do it by ourselves. The state has to step up too, in various ways - not just the operating budget, but the capital budget, by allowing us to help the state in its economic development. ... If we get the partnership ... there is nothing that can stop us.

You couldn't find a better place in the country to create a flagship public university than this. Here we are between Baltimore and Washington, all the federal research enterprise around us. We are near the nation's capital, with the international programs - and international is so important these days. Security is such an important issue for the country as a whole. We are right in the middle of [the] security enterprise.

So you might say, Well, what is our greatest problem? It is on this sheet here. (The sheet shows two line graphs indicating a large gap between the per-pupil expenditures at College Park and those at other top state universities.)

You can see, going back to 1996, we have not been close to average. We have been about $3,000 below the average of our peer group. So, when you have 25,000 students, you are talking over 90 million dollars a year. ... Then, you see, we are projecting where we will be this year. And it is going to be about $2,400 per student below the average. Only 75 million below the average. That is better; it is not excellent. I think, ultimately, to meet the top 10, we have to get up to [average]. ... It is a reasonable goal.

College Park's weakness was believed to be the biological sciences in the past. Can you talk about whether that has changed, or if there are other areas that the university needs to expand or grow to improve [its] position?

When I first arrived in 1998, my observation was that the biological sciences were not up to the standard that they need to be. In fact, you cannot build a great university in this period without strong biological sciences.

We have invested substantially in the biological sciences. The state has helped us greatly. Governor Ehrlich accelerated the building of a biological sciences research building, which will open this fall. We are creating a department of biological engineering. That is in the process now. So we are striving to this direction.

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