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Higher Education: Are We There Yet?


Five years ago, Maryland reorganized its public higher-education system, seeking quality and efficiency.

A single, powerful board, it was thought, could bring order out of a system in which most campuses tried to do almost everything -- and didn't do them well enough.

But instead of a single, powerful board, the reorganization legislation produced two boards -- a Board of Regents for the University of Maryland System and a Maryland Higher Education Commission. The regents were supposed to oversee all the public, four-year colleges and universities, while the commission would coordinate among the university system, community colleges, private colleges and proprietary schools.

And instead of all the public campuses, the legislation gave the regents all but two; Morgan State University and St. Mary's College retained their own boards (despite advice that they could lose out to the now-more-powerful university system). Five years later, far from losing out, Morgan and St. Mary's have thrived in a difficult era.

Buoyed in part by its own efforts and in part by a trend of more African-American students choosing historically black schools, Morgan saw a healthy increase in enrollment and in the Scholastic Aptitude Test scores of its entering students. St. Mary's cut a deal to double its tuition over a five-year period in return for stable state contributions to the college budget.

While the two campuses outside the university system were doing well, those inside were scrambling to adjust to a new organization chart. The new system brought together the old university campuses (College Park, Baltimore County, Eastern Shore and the professional schools in Baltimore) with the old state colleges (Towson, Bowie, Salisbury, Frostburg, Coppin, University of Baltimore). The regents and higher-education commission took a while to settle who was responsible for what.

By the time the bureaucracies had begun to mesh, the state, which initially had committed lots of money to higher-education improvement, hit a budget crisis.

"It takes more than five years in good times" to make significant TC improvements in a state university system, says Shaila R. Aery, the state's higher education secretary. But far from being the best of times, in the last five years the universities have seen "three chancellors, two board chairmen and nine budget cuts."

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that Maryland seems little closer to quality and efficiency in higher education than it did five years ago. That isn't to say no good things have happened, but the overall trend is hardly dramatically upward. Even beyond the extraordinary difficulties of the past five years, there are two other reasons we should not be surprised that the reorganization failed to produce sharp improvements.

First, a reorganization can solve organizational problems, but cannot by itself solve educational problems. A new board, a new chancellor, a new cabinet secretary cannot directly improve the quality of faculty, programs or students. A bad structure may make improvements more difficult, but the most that structural change can do is reduce impediments to change. Among states with reputations for high-quality systems, there are a variety of organization charts.

Second, efficiency is difficult to maximize in a system which has grown up through decisions made when times were different and through historical accident (when the state, for example, takes over a private school in financial trouble).

So Maryland finds itself with two law schools in downtown Baltimore and none anywhere else. That's not how anyone would set it up starting from scratch.

There are probably too many campuses in the Baltimore region (which used to have a larger share of the state's population), while other areas, particularly fast-growing Southern Maryland, complain they are under-served by the system.

But is the state really going to close a school in the Baltimore area (where both law schools are full and turning away qualified applicants) and build another somewhere else?

While there is some "duplication" of programs at different campuses, it's not clear how much the state gains (in quality or in budget savings) by closing some programs which are working reasonably well.

This doesn't mean improvement efforts are futile. But no one should expect a quick fix by juggling the boxes on the organization chart.

OC M. William Salganik is editor of The Sun's Perspective section.

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