State university leaders, in what they call a quest to expand college access to students around Maryland, are working to reverse an October decision by the Maryland Higher Education Commission that quashed an online doctoral program because it duplicated a face-to-face program at Morgan State.

The higher-education panel barred University of Maryland University College from offering the program for community college administrators to in-state students, instead giving Morgan two years to add an online component to its program. The decision left UMUC - the largest online arm of the state system - in the position of delivering a program to students from every state but Maryland.

The education commission's ruling seemed to bring the matter to a close. But the university system's Board of Regents has refused to drop the fight, arguing that the future of other online programs could be imperiled by the precedent.

In an unusual move, the regents have asked the commission to reconsider the vote.

"The decision completely ignores a stated priority in the 2009 Maryland State Plan for Higher Education," wrote Board of Regents Chairman Clifford Kendall in a letter to the commission. "The State Plan supports access to degrees through online programs in order to meet 'the needs of a largely working, adult population who require a flexible schedule.' This decision sets a potentially debilitating precedent that will discourage universities from doing the very thing that MHEC's state plan charges them to do."

Kendall added that the decision made Maryland a "subject of bemusement and bewilderment across the country."

But MHEC Chairman Kevin O'Keefe said he has been bewildered by the backlash against his commission's vote.

"It strikes me that it's a very narrow impact we're talking about," he said. "I'm somewhat surprised at the passion and persistence of the system's opposition. I remain convinced that this was an isolated issue."

MHEC has no obligation to respond to the regents' request for reconsideration. O'Keefe said he might ask commission members if they want to reopen the issue at MHEC's next meeting in late January.

"It's a reasonable request," he said. "But I don't know that there's a strong sentiment among the majority of our members that we should reconsider the issue."

There is no mechanism for UMUC or the system to file a formal appeal.

The university system will wait for MHEC's response before making its next move, said P.J. Hogan, vice chancellor for legislative affairs. Immediately after the decision, some critics suggested taking the issue to the General Assembly, where legislators could rewrite MHEC guidelines to create new protections for online programs. But Hogan said the system is unlikely to make such a push during the legislative session, which opens Wednesday. He said university leaders will more likely push for change through a recently formed task force that is set to review MHEC's approach to program review.

"That seems like the proper place to explore the issue," Hogan said.

O'Keefe expects the task force to consider more explicit guidelines for online programs, which are treated the same as face-to-face programs in existing statutes. "I don't see how we could not be mindful of it," he said.

The task force is unlikely to deliver its recommendations before next year.

It's also possible that a group of Maryland students could file a lawsuit against the state demanding access to UMUC's doctoral program. Hogan said he has not heard of any movement in that direction, and said the decision might not impact enough people to prompt such action.

To get a new program approved by MHEC, a university must demonstrate that the program meets state needs and market demands. MHEC is charged with preventing "unreasonable" duplication of programs from one university to another.

UMUC officials said they believed they demonstrated a critical market need for community college administrators and argued that their program could reach students who would not be able to get to Morgan for classes.

But commission members agreed with Morgan's contention that the online program could unnecessarily pull students away from a thriving face-to-face program.

The regents and UMUC officials said that by sticking to traditional concepts of duplication, the commission ignored the state's need to embrace new modes of higher education.

UMUC President Susan C. Aldridge said the state needs to look at online education as a broader public policy issue. She was shocked when Morgan raised an objection to UMUC's proposed program "because historically, online programs have been viewed completely differently than face-to-face programs."

She said it makes little sense to consider Morgan and UMUC geographically proximate, because the strength of an online program is its ability to offer the same education to a resident of far western Garrett County or to a working adult in Baltimore. A face-to-face program can't achieve that sort of breadth and should be categorized differently, Aldridge said.

She worries that other institutions could block new programs at UMUC using the same arguments as Morgan.

"The issue is that the current framework does not address online education," she said. "This is the 21st century, and program review requirements need to be brought into the 21st century."