New UM chief finding feet after rocky start


Less than a year into his $175,000 job as chief executive of the state's 11-campus university system, Donald N. Langenberg has yet to have his honeymoon.

The chancellor has alienated the governor and has been publicly dressed down by a key state Senate committee. He blindsided leaders of the state's flagship campus in a way that lost their trust.

"He got off on the wrong foot," said Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who until last week hadn't spoken to Dr. Langenberg since last fall.

In an interview last week, Governor Schaefer said that while the new university system is working more smoothly, the new chancellor has a lot to learn about how to get along with the legislature, college presidents and regents.

Will he last? "I don't know," the governor said. "He's brand new, and we've got to give him time."

Nearly everyone agrees that the wry physicist from Illinois has had a tough first year in a tough job.

The 59-year-old chancellor came with a mandate to shape the character of a new state university system and establish priorities in a $1 billion-plus budget. He was greeted with a flood of good will after the turbulent tenure of John S. Toll, but suddenly things began to go wrong.

By fall, he had angered the governor with remarks over a budget shortfall that Mr. Schaefer took to be less than appreciative of the state's investment in higher education.

Then, Dr. Langenberg insulted members of a Senate Budget and Taxation subcommittee by reading to them from a lengthy tract and failing to satisfy their questions. Lawmakers told him that if they wanted someone to read to them, they could find someone cheaper. "He expected to sweet talk B&T;, but B&T; was having no part," said Sen. Julian L. Lapides, D-Baltimore.

Last month, in a face-off with College Park over the future of the College of Agriculture, Dr. Langenberg proposed a new institute for agriculture research and cooperative extension programs. He called it a mere name change, but it cemented the control of the two units in his central administration and, according to College Park -- which wants the units back on campus -- has negative implications for undergraduate education.

Beyond questioning the academic merits, the faculty at College Park objected strenuously to the way the chancellor handled the proposal, notifying the campus President William E. Kirwan only a day before bringing it to University of Maryland System regents. They smelled a hidden agenda.

"If it is merely a cosmetic name change, why waste the regents' time?" asked Jacob K. Goldhaber, dean of graduate studies and research at College Park. He called the chancellor's methods "devious" and the regents' decision a "shameful rush to judgment" on a complicated issue that has been discussed for 10 years.

"What I like to see in a chancellor is somebody with a basic set of beliefs," Dr. Goldhaber said. "I don't know what his set of axioms are."

The agriculture debate, as well as a perception that the new chancellor has not made a commitment to College Park as the flagship, has set off bells, said Bruce R. Fretz, professor of psychology and chairman of the College Park campus Senate. "He has certainly created an atmosphere in which there is a lack of trust," the professor said.

Critics say the chancellor is either not getting good advice or not taking it, has yet to learn how to stroke his constituency and is hard to read.

"I'd hate to play poker with him," said the state secretary for higher education, Shaila R. Aery, who worked as a blackjack dealer for a time after college.

The result is uncertainty that the chancellor will be able to set priorities and avoid the leveling effect that has plagued higher education in Maryland for years. The goal is even more critical because of a recession that has seen promised state funding cut and a university budget that has reverted to 1987 levels without a corresponding drop in expectations for higher education.

This spring, after the chancellor opted to spread another round of budget cuts across the board, law

makers privately discussed whether hardest-hit College Park would be better off quitting the new system. Unhappiness with university spending also led some lawmakers to wonder whether a hands-on approach to the now autonomous university budget might be needed.

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, D-Baltimore, chairwoman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees the higher education budget, said that the chancellor has made some tactical mistakes from inexperience in dealing with UM campuses, particularly College Park, and that they need to be fixed.

"If you are the president of the flagship, you are entitled to have a good relationship with the chancellor," she said. "And it is in the chancellor's interest to have a good relationship with the flagship. That's where you have your 14-karat gold eggs."

But she and others said it's too soon to judge the chancellor. "He's smart. He's trying real hard. Whatever skills he needs to develop, he will," Senator Hoffman said.

Meanwhile, many are anxiously awaiting his next move: unveiling a vision for the system. The key, said Dr. Aery, is how he implements it.

Dr. Langenberg acknowledges that he wishes some things had gone differently in his first year. But in general, he said, "I am reasonably well satisfied."

He points to his success in solving a 15-year-old dispute among doctors at the School of Medicine, University Hospital and the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where doctors had threatened to quit if the issue were not resolved to their satisfaction.

In that case, the chancellor "was able to envision a new organizational structure that no one else had thought of," said Dr. Howard Belzberg, chief of internal medicine at Shock Trauma. What was remarkable, adds Dr. Ameen Ramzy, director of the state emergency medical system, was that a newcomer could come into a complicated situation, see and unravel bungled relationships, and chart a new course. "It's a tribute to his genius and his ability to get along with people," Dr. Ramzy said.

It's the reason Delegate Timothy F. Maloney, D-Prince George's, views the chancellor as a "great conciliator" who will be good for the system.

"He's got everything going for him but money," Mr. Maloney said.

Laying to rest such conflicts has allowed the chancellor to build a good foundation for future development, says Hoke Smith, president of Towson State University.

H. Mebane Turner, president of the University of Baltimore, and other presidents say the chancellor hasn't had time to have a honeymoon.

As his formal inauguration approaches June 26, the chancellor has begun wooing back the disenchanted. He met with the governor last week to unveil his vision of what the new state system should be and says he was warmly received. He is scouting for new staff and has set up a committee to help set budget priorities.

He attributes College Park's mistrust to insecurity, something he says he hopes to help eliminate during his tenure, and notes that he and the regents went out on a political and financial limb to borrow money for buildings on the campus this year in the midst of the recession.

But he said he disagrees with Secretary Aery that attaining national excellence for the state university system rises and falls with College Park. The future of the campus rests more with its faculty and the role the campus chooses to play, he said.

As for being hard to read, Dr. Langenberg says he's not playing the poker game alone. "The regents and I have considerable difficulty understanding what the [Maryland Higher Education] commission is getting at," he said.

For now, it is clear that the chancellor will have the chance to develop his vision, to be detailed in his inauguration speech.

George V. McGowan, chairman of the Board of Regents, says the chancellor is well on the way to improving higher education, and he doesn't believe that the chancellor still has a lot to learn.

Nor does he find fault with Dr. Langenberg's relationships with the governor or legislature, saying the chancellor's early missteps were due to a lack of experience in the state. Those bridges have been mended, Mr. McGowan said, and now it's the state's turn to get to know Dr. Langenberg.

"He's a different personality. He's not a Johnny Toll," Mr. McGowan said. Instead of taking over the room as his predecessor might have, Dr. Langenberg is a quiet consensus builder with an extraordinary amount of patience, the regent said.

"He doesn't do it in a flashy manner, yet when I reflect on the year, I find he has accomplished a lot," Mr. McGowan said.

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