Becoming the president of the University of Maryland at Baltimore lately is like marrying Henry VIII. You never know how long you're going to last.
Since 1984, eight men have had the top UMAB job.
The first died after a heart attack. A few were only assigned to the job on a temporary basis, officials said. Others became casualties of bitter infighting. One president never even showed up, resigning in 1989 before he took office.
Now comes David J. Ramsay, fresh from the University of California at San Francisco, one of the nation's most prestigious public health sciences centers. The former No. 2 official there for more than a decade, he is considered the perfect match for the $313 million operation at UMAB, a school with a history of vicious infighting.
No one ever said it would be easy. And that's just the way Dr.
Ramsay wants it.
"I love having a group of angry people come in the room with an insoluble problem and then working out a solution -- or have the group work out a solution itself," said Dr. Ramsay, who became president of UMAB on June 1.
Since taking office, Dr. Ramsay has bounded around the downtown campus and the nation's capital, touting UMAB's virtues and promoting the Washington-Baltimore corridor as a haven for biosciences research. The campus has nearly doubled its grants and contract funding in the past five years.
Yet it still has far to go. According to the National Science Foundation, UMAB ranked 58th nationally in total spending on research and development with $107.8 million in 1992; just a short drive away, the Johns Hopkins University rates first with $735.5 million.
Dr. Ramsay said he intends to lead the charge in Washington to secure a bigger slice of the governmental pie for UMAB. In fact, the self-professed political junkie said he finds the raised political profile one of the job's primary attractions.
In San Francisco, Dr. Ramsay found himself confronting opposition to physical expansion of the campus and to medical experiments on laboratory animals. It was Dr. Ramsay who spoke vigorously on the university's behalf, an aspect that appealed to regents here as they searched for a new president for UMAB.
"They've been through a decade of regulatory and political hell" in San Francisco, said University of Maryland System Chancellor Donald N. Langenberg. "You're not looking just for a particularly good paper pusher. You are looking for a leader."
In his engaging, if somewhat elliptical, style, Dr. Ramsay talked recently about where he believes UMAB can make its mark. During a time of relative penny-pinching in Annapolis and Washington, research centers should reach out to corporate sponsors, he said.
"Universities, I think, are getting -- and should be getting -- increasingly aggressive about taking the discoveries that they make and pushing them out there in the commercial sector," Dr. Ramsay said.
As he spoke, the lanky 55-year-old looked and sounded very much like the stereotype of a tweedy Oxford don -- something he might well have become had he not left Oxford University for California 20 years ago to pursue his own research. So Dr. Ramsay's sons grew up in California: one is married and living in San Diego; another attends college in Humboldt State University in northern California.
The British-born Dr. Ramsay, by contrast, spent his childhood bouncing from home to home to avoid the bombing raids of the Nazi Luftwaffe during World War II.
With his wife, Anne, and his aunt, who ran a school outside Manchester where he frequently found himself as a boy, Dr. Ramsay temporarily lives at Marlboro Square apartments, down the block from the campus.
UMAB, on the western edge of downtown, is no university in the commonly understood sense of the word, as it educates few undergraduates. Instead, it maintains professional schools of dentistry, law, medicine, nursing, pharmacy and social work, educating a staggering proportion of the state's doctors and lawyers. The broad array of health-related programs, training midwives to specialists, leaves the university well-poised to anticipate the growing clamor for educating primary-care physicians, Dr. Ramsay said.
Yet the campus' makeup leaves UMAB lacking any true common identity. The law school particularly finds itself an anomaly among the university's other schools, officials there said. And the schools' deans have had a tradition of jealously guarding their turf, observers said.
"It's really a collection of fiefdoms, populated with strong personalities," said Del. Timothy F. Maloney, a Democrat from Prince George's County who heads the subcommittee that oversees the university. "They probably think of themselves less as a campus than any other institution in the system."
The divide shows in ways large and small. Neither the medical school, the only public one in the state, nor the law school mentions that it is part of UMAB on the diplomas it issues; instead, the schools call themselves the University of Maryland law or medical schools. Former regents board Chairman Peter O'Malley and others sought to merge the campus with the
University of Maryland Baltimore County to form a comprehensive university. The two campuses jointly operate a graduate school.
Mr. O'Malley's controversial initiative, released without the usual campus discussion, contributed to the decision in 1989 of Harvard University medical Professor Augustus White to resign from the UMAB presidency before arriving in Baltimore. Mr. O'Malley left the board soon after. Regents later asked dentistry school Dean Erroll Reese, who headed a panel seeking successors, to fill the post, but he resigned under pressure from the board three years later.
Some in the medical side of the campus did not fully accept Dr. Reese's authority, officials said. In one particularly jarring instance, Donald E. Wilson, dean of the medical school, tried to push through a raise in his salary -- already significantly above that of the president -- although it had been previously rejected by Dr. Reese.
Dr. White declined to be interviewed for this article, and Dr. Reese could not be reached for comment.
Combined with struggles over the shock trauma unit and breaking off University Hospital (now called University of Maryland Medical Center) as a separate unit, the fights have taken a severe toll on the university and its morale. And Dr. Ramsay has his work cut out for him, campus and state officials agree.
"It's hard to teach an old dog new tricks," Dr. Langenberg said. "You can't just say, 'We will schmooze with each other, and it's just going to happen.' It's not."
George V. McGowan, chairman of the system board of regents, said of Dr. Ramsay: "Here was an individual who we felt could deal with difficulty and change and unrest with skill."
"It's going to take someone with Ramsay's credentials to unify those people into one single institution," Mr. Maloney said.
Unlike Dr. Reese, faculty and deans said, Dr. Ramsay has been able to command the respect of the medical faculty because of the recognition he has received for his nonadministrative work. An Oxford-trained researcher with an M.D. and the British equivalent of a Ph.D., he is the past editor of the American Journal of Physiology, a member of numerous national committees on science and medical issues, and the winner of a teaching award at the University of California at San Francisco.
Dr. Ramsay said he is not naive about the liabilities of the office he has assumed, which pays $215,000 a year, with a $19,500 housing and car allowance. "You could say the leadership's been on the shaky side," he conceded. But he also said the storied clashes, as described on campus, in Annapolis and in The Sun, are nowhere near as fierce as advertised.
The territory is not entirely unexplored for Dr. Ramsay. For the past 12 years, he had served as the senior vice chancellor for academic affairs at UCSF, a health sciences research complex that stands among the leading recipients of federal research grants in the nation.
"When I heard that the University of Maryland opportunity was there, I told them that David was the person I would choose in a minute," said former UCSF Chancellor Julius Krevans, who nominated Dr. Ramsay for the UMAB post.
And the idea of using UCSF as a template for success has found favor with Dr. Langenberg and Mr. McGowan. Dr. Ramsay clearly stood out, his new associates said, with just the right combination of professionalism and personality to lead UMAB to the elite ranks of public institutions.
What his new charges may not have expected was his instinctive dedication to the new campus. Just days into this fall's new semester, a UMAB law student committed suicide.
On Sept. 1, the campus held a memorial service for her in Westminster Hall. Without being asked, Dr. Ramsay took the floor to talk about depression, how easy it is to become depressed and how tough it is to shake.
And then, unexpectedly, Dr. Ramsay talked about the suicide of his own son, expressing a father's grief and eventual acceptance.
"He shared this publicly, in the most tasteful and moving terms," TTC said Mark A. Sargent, a law professor at UMAB. "It helped our students understand the death of their friend. I know the students appreciated it enormously and were very touched by it."
Asked last week about his compassion, Dr. Ramsay said: "I saw the poor mother in the front row, weeping, you see. I tried to comfort her."
OC David Folkenflik covers higher education for The Baltimore Sun.
DAVID J. RAMSAY
Education: Undergraduate, doctorate in physiology and medical degree, Oxford University
Professional: 1963-1975 demonstrator, lecturer, fellow and professor in physiology at Oxford.
* 1974-1982, professor, department of physiology, University of California at San Francisco
* 1982-1994 senior vice president for academic affairs, UC-San Francisco
* 1994- President, University of Maryland at Baltimore
Selected Honors and Activities: 1983-1990 editor, AmericaJournal of Physiology; Fellow, Royal Society of Medicine
UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND AT BALTIMORE (UMAB)
Components: The School of Medicine, the Dental School, the School of Law, the Graduate School, the School of Nursing, the School of Pharmacy, the School of Social Work.
Fall 1993 enrollment: 2,272 graduate students
* 2,143 professional students
* 823 undergraduates
Budget (fiscal 1994): $313 million