The University of Maryland Baltimore County, which celebrates its 25th anniversary today, is proof that an institution has a life of its own, sometimes outlasting and outperforming the people who operate it.

Back in 1966, Mayor McKeldin and Del. Julian Lapides were right: The state put economy ahead of sensible planning when it opted for building an undergraduate campus on state-owned land in Catonsville instead of downtown, next to the university's professional schools. Through the years, most of the grandiose plans for UMBC -- in one, it was to have 20,000 students studying around five lakes by 1981 -- went awry, and architects designed a campus with a drab institutional look.

But almost as if the institution were determined to rise above the people around it, UMBC reaches its 25th anniversary in amazingly good shape. A cadre of excellent faculty was recruited to launch the school, and UMBC has never lost sight of the need for strong teachers and researchers. Michael Hooker, president for the past five years, has built on the school's strengths in the sciences, adding such 21st-century emphases as applied molecular biology, photonics and robotics. Moreover, UMBC has become a much fuller participant in the community of which it is a part, offering its expertise to the solving of the Baltimore region's many social and economic problems. Notable UMBC's Meyerhoff Scholarship Program, a science and technology program for Maryland's brightest young black students.

No doubt UMBC will be a much different place at its golden anniversary in 2116 than its administrators and planners envision today. That is the way with most institutions, particularly, it seems, those in public higher education that are subject to the whims of state politics and economics. Today, though, it is sufficient to wish UMBC happy birthday and many more.

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