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News Opinion Editorial

The Maryland model

The messy situation at the University of Virginia, which recently saw its president forced to resign by the school's governing board, only to be reinstated two weeks later after faculty and student protests, highlighted problems of institutional reform and financial sustainability that are not unique to the school founded by Thomas Jefferson. Maryland confronts many of the same challenges, which are affecting public colleges and universities across the country, but it has done so in ways that, fortunately, have allowed it to avoid many of the missteps Virginia made.

The problems at Virginia's flagship university have been portrayed as a personality clash between the school's strong-willed president, Teresa Sullivan, and the equally determined chairman of its governing board, Helen E. Dragas. Yet the issues go deeper than that. Ironically, both women hold similar views about what the school needs to ensure its future as a top-ranked public institution. Both recognize the need to develop more effective teaching methods, make better use of technology and restrain rising college costs without compromising academic quality.

But while they largely agreed on what must be done, Ms. Sullivan and Ms. Dragas, who are both the first women in the school's history to hold their positions, apparently could not agree on how to do it. Matters came to a head last month, when Ms. Dragas tried to orchestrate Ms. Sullivan's ouster through a series of behind-the-scenes phone calls and emails to fellow board members rather than by presenting the issue openly at the panel's public meetings.

The reaction was swift: The faculty and student body rallied behind Ms. Sullivan, and several prominent donors vowed to withhold future contributions if the board didn't reverse its decision. Supporters of Ms. Sullivan were particularly incensed that the secrecy of the process had left board the members who voted to dismiss Ms. Sullivan unable to justify their actions. Faced with a revolt among the academic community — and an exasperated Virginia Gov.Robert F. McDonnell's threat to fire the entire board unless it quickly resolved the matter — Ms. Dragas and her colleagues backed down and announced the president could remain in her job.

What was particularly unfortunate about this episode is that the embarrassment it entailed diverted attention from the real policy issues that gave rise to the conflict, which had mostly to do with how quickly the school was moving to embrace the kind of reforms needed to ensure its long-term growth and financial stability. Mrs. Dragas, a successful businesswoman with a reputation for tackling problems head on, believed Ms. Sullivan, a highly respected former professor of sociology, wasn't acting aggressively enough to transform the school's instructional and economic model.

While the board president's sense of urgency is understandable, she might have tempered her impatience had she taken the time to look at how Maryland is coping with similar pressures. The University System of Maryland has been engaged for more than a decade in an effort to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of its public institutions by reining in rising tuitions, streamlining academic processes and reducing administrative costs. While other states have seen annual tuition costs go up by as much as 25 percent in recent years, Maryland has been able to cap such increases at between 2 percent and 3 percent.

At the same time, the state has moved vigorously to adopt new technologies in the classroom to improve student learning and lower the cost of instruction. The system has totally redesigned about 40 courses in its math, science, technology, engineering and math programs and now has some 15,000 students enrolled in active learning classrooms equipped with computers and intelligent software that provide immediate feedback on how they are doing. Such re-engineered courses have allowed a developmental math class at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, for example, to see a 25 percent improvement in student pass rates while lowering the cost of instruction by 40 percent.

In hindsight, it's clear there probably was no way the University of Virginia's president could have introduced in the two years she's been on the job the kinds of reforms Maryland has been developing for more than a decade. The idea that one could take a tradition-steeped institution like UVA and throw out the old while replacing it almost overnight with a new paradigm was probably never realistic, despite Ms. Dragas' hopes, and Ms. Sullivan was wise to resist it.

The kind of fundamental reforms Maryland is achieving and Virginia wishes to emulate take years of sustained effort and a commitment to bend the cost curve in a way that doesn't compromise the quality of student instruction. And in part because Maryland's public colleges and universities have been careful to manage costs while improving outcomes for students, they haven't had to face the draconian budget cuts experienced in other states. In that regard, the state stands in stark contrast not only to Virginia but to much of the rest of the country as well.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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