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Higher education in turmoil -- III Baltimore campuses: Towson, UMBC and downtown professional schools can't fulfill diverse missions.


SOME of Baltimore's most important universities find themselves in straitjackets placed on them by two governing boards that don't fathom their pivotal roles in regional development.

Towson University, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the downtown professional campus known as the University of Maryland, Baltimore lag in getting the funds needed to excel at their missions. They are hindered by a mystifying web of bureaucracy and overlapping authorities with no strong advocates on Maryland's governing boards.

Metropolitan Baltimore is the loser. This region cannot transform itself into a hub of job growth without superior universities that are properly funded and highly motivated to meet the need for specialized workers, especially in high-tech, cutting-edge research.

At the moment, that's not happening.

* Towson is billed as a comprehensive metropolitan university, but it has never received the money or operating flexibility to achieve elite ranking. Its longtime president, Hoke L. Smith, talks of pulling TU out of the University System of Maryland. (Morgan State University and St. Mary's College are already exempt from the system.)

He recently recounted his campus' plight for a task force looking at higher education changes: dead last in the system in per-student funding; no money to overhaul aging buildings on a campus seeing a 25 percent increase in students; no money to hire faculty to meet this student surge, or to match faculty salaries at peer institutions.

With 16,000 students and a faculty of 513, Towson is the second-largest university in Maryland. Yet since 1989 it has received a paltry 1.8 percent of the system's capital budget funds.

Now the Board of Regents has earmarked $76 million for building projects on the Towson campus. But it comes too late. Those new buildings won't be ready until 2005.

How can Towson University serve the 4,000 additional students the regents expect to enroll over the next three or four years?

And how can Towson University offer students the array of programs they demand when forced to comply with the time-consuming, overlapping approval process of the Board of Regents and the Maryland Higher Education Commission (MHEC)? Too often, their focus is on avoiding the duplication of programs offered at other schools, not on meeting the job-related demands for programs of Towson students.

* UMBC's situation is just as frustrating.

The Catonsville campus, with 10,000 students, is only 32 years ++ old but has achieved considerable national notice with its honors program, its undergraduate focus on the sciences and high-tech programs and its fast-growing research activities (now nearing $50 million). It, too, is poorly funded by the governing boards.

UMBC has been blocked by education politics -- especially MHEC's concerns about program duplication -- from gaining science and technology programs, particularly electrical engineering. This despite the strong demand for electrical engineers -- which higher education isn't meeting.

UMBC can't get funds to hire more information technology professors, either -- though the number of IT students at UMBC has doubled and Maryland's high-tech firms are crying for more trained workers. And campus officials can't persuade the Board of Regents to give priority to a critical technology building.

Freeman Hrabowski, the campus' charismatic president, says $12 million more would be needed to get UMBC where it should be. Applying a formula devised by the higher education commission, UMBC's underfunding approaches $25 million. Unless his campus' shortcomings are addressed, Mr. Hrabowski may not stay around.

* The system's downtown professional schools (UMAB), headed David J. Ramsay, have 5,800 students and $146 million in research grants. Yet they find themselves greatly misunderstood the governing boards.

As a health-sciences post-graduate campus with heavy expenses for medical-related schooling and sophisticated research equipment, UMAB cannot be lumped in with four-year undergraduate colleges when the state hands out dollars. But that's what happens now. Adjusted for inflation, UMAB's state appropriation this year was 30 percent less than its allocation eight years ago.

Meanwhile, UMAB's key role in "technology transfers" -- transforming the fruits of research into profit-making companies -- lacks the financial and political support it warrants. Unyielding state regulations make it nearly impossible for UMAB to compete in this important arena.

Denied adequate state support, UMAB's graduate-school tuitions are among the highest in the nation, its faculty salaries lag far behind, its library is woefully underfunded and maintenance has ground to a halt. Just to bring UMAB up to a level where it is in the lower-end of its peer group would cost $53 million.

Each institution deserves special status within the system. The Board of Regents or the education commission often prevents Towson, UMAB and UMBC from making great strides in their diverse missions. This, in turn, impedes economic development and job growth in the Baltimore region.

All three campuses should be given greater autonomy to meet the fast-changing needs of society, particularly in the technology and health-sciences fields: More leeway in drawing up budgets and capital projects; the power to start programs quickly in response to market-driven demands; liberation from rigid state procurement and personnel requirements.

More state money is equally important. Keeping Towson in the poorhouse is intolerable. Thwarting UMBC's well-focused technology imperatives is shortsighted. Denying UMAB the flexibility and cash to meet its entrepreneurial objectives is a formula for failure.

If state political and academic leaders want to make the governing structure work, major changes are in order. That must start with a recognition of higher education's importance to the well-being of all Maryland citizens.

Thursday: Reforming how public universities are governed.

Pub Date: 12/15/98

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