Separate but equal at UM University College?


December 08, 2008|By Mark S. Langevin

I proudly teach government and politics at University of Maryland University College (UMUC) and often discuss the notorious 1898 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case with my students. Plessy cemented the post-Reconstruction Jim Crow foundation by endorsing the racist doctrine of "separate but equal."

In some ways, UMUC is similar to the East Louisiana Railroad car that Homer Plessy boarded on June 7, 1892. Just as railroads served to propel the U.S. toward progress in the 19th century, UMUC plays a key role in creating a future of global opportunities for thousands of adult students in Maryland and throughout the world, offering bachelor's and master's programs, a doctoral program and a multitude of certificate programs and numerous online offerings. Last year, UMUC enrolled more than 90,000 students in three continents. UMUC could grow by 50 percent in the next decade, by far the largest increase in the University System of Maryland. Unfortunately, the burden of such expansion will fall upon those least able to afford it: students and faculty.

UMUC resident students pay 400 percent more toward their educational expenses than the state's share. At College Park and Frostburg State, students pay only 80 percent of what state taxpayers do. Multiplying the inequality, only 33 percent of UMUC undergraduates receive financial aid, compared with a majority of students enrolled at peer institutions. It gets worse. UMUC has no tenured faculty, only a tiny team of full-time professors with short-term contracts lost among the legions of part-time faculty. More than 80 percent of UMUC faculty are contracted one course at a time.

UMUC's faculty model doubles down on inequality by forcing students to the back of the higher-education bus along with their part-time professors who earn only a third of what full-time professors at peer schools in Maryland earn for comparable work.

But low pay and squeezed students don't add up to efficiency. Operating expenditures per full-time student equivalent at UMUC far exceed those at Frostburg, Bowie, Coppin, Salisbury and Towson universities by amounts ranging from $4,000 to $8,000 per student, even though these schools rely on a solid core of full-time, tenure-track professors in a traditional campus setting. Curiously, UMUC's high administrative costs do not square with its efficient, scalable system of information technology to deliver a virtual classroom to most students. Even more perplexing, UMUC spends relatively less on each student's education. The figures are as instructive as they are unequal: 36 percent of UMUC operating expenses are devoted to student instruction, compared with 45 percent for Frostburg State and Salisbury University, 43 percent at Bowie State and 40 percent at Towson.

Despite UMUC's many virtues, including its dedicated faculty, its palpable inequalities make the college ride more like the East Louisiana Railroad than an engine of equal opportunity. I have to ask myself: What would Homer Plessy say? Better yet, what would he do if he taught at UMUC?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Mark S. Langevin is an adjunct associate professor of government and politics at UMUC and an elected representative to the Faculty Advisory Committee.

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