As this week's hearing of the state's task force on higher education broke up, Del. Nancy K. Kopp and key state official Patricia S. Florestano were huddled in deep discussion.
"I think we've really gotten to the crux of the issue," Kopp, a Montgomery Democrat, said of the testimony the higher education secretary had just completed.
That statement was a clear indication that this task force is probably going to be content with trimming a few trees in the current system of public higher education -- and not try to grow a new forest.
Florestano had focused on overlaps in the responsibilities of the Maryland Higher Education Commission, which she heads, and the Board of Regents of the University System of Maryland, which oversees 11 of the state's public schools.
Such matters are of importance to the administrators at the state's schools who often face a confusing bureaucracy above them. But clearing them up will do little to alter substantially the face of higher education in the state. Most observers say details of the governance structure are much less important than the amount of money the state commits to higher education in the next session of the General Assembly.
"We're not trying to fix something that's broken," Adm. Charles R. Larson said of the current system. Larson, the retired head of the Naval Academy, is chairman of the task force.
"Almost any system will work if you put the right people in it," he said. "We're just trying to give Maryland the best possible system that will allow good people to do their best work."
The 23-member task force began meeting in September. It was supposed to wind up its information gathering this week, but will hear more testimony Dec. 15 before discussing its recommendations. Those are to be decided Dec. 22, with the final report issued in the first week of January.
"We've collected all this information, identified all the problems, but we haven't sat down and talked about what we are going to do about them," said Anne Arundel Republican Sen. Robert R. Neall, a member of the task force, who noted that he has a conference table covered with higher education documents, several inches deep.
"Right now, where the votes are in this group is the least predictable," he said. "But I do not see us blowing up the system."
Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat, agreed. "We're going to make some changes in the current setup, but we're certainly not going to dismantle it," she said.
Hoffman and Kopp were two of the architects of the 1988 legislation that put all of the state's campuses -- except Morgan State and St. Mary's, which opted to remain independent -- under the university system and its Board of Regents while giving oversight of educational programs to the Higher Education Commission.
"It's not a perfect bill," Hoffman said. "We never said it was. We thought the Regents would have more gumption and close some campuses.
"But that didn't happen and politically now we know it's not going to happen," she said. "So we have to go on from here."
Many politicians and campus officials think that difficulties with the system stem from the recession that forced the Regents to fund the campuses in the early 1990s at levels far below those envisioned in the legislation. The campuses that remained independent have fared better than those in the system.
When the task force began its work, State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Prince George's Democrat, made clear his agenda -- some form of independence for the University of Maryland, College Park. Many of its top officials -- including former president William E. Kirwan and new president C. D. "Dan" Mote Jr. -- have complained that the campus was stymied under the system.
Hoffman thought those problems could be taken care of without massive restructuring.
"I think we can treat College Park as the flagship campus differently even within the university system," she said. "That's already occurring de facto."
One possibility would have College Park allowed to present its budget request to the governor and legislature independently of the rest of the university system's budget.
A more difficult problem appears to be Towson University, whose president, Hoke Smith, has asked that the school be taken out out of the university system unless substantial changes are made. He says the system has not supported Towson's quest to become a comprehensive urban university.
Hoffman and others say that this might be more a matter of personalities than procedure.
"What I want to see is an attitudinal change and you can't legislate that," she said. "If you have the right president in the job, then you have to let him do the job. The system is supposed to support the presidents, not be their boss."
Most school presidents seem pleased with the setup.
Catherine R. Gira of Frostburg State pointed to the large number of cooperative programs she has with other public institutions.
"I'm sure we would not have those if we weren't all part of the university system," she said.
Freeman A. Hrabowski III of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County agreed.
"It's important that we work together to improve higher education in the state," he said. "If we start fighting each other, we all lose."
Neall said that whatever the task force decides, the real battle over the future of higher education will have just begun.
"There have been plenty of these reports in the past and usually the legislature has ignored the recommendations," he said. "So we will have to wait and see what happens in the General Assembly."
Pub Date: 12/04/98