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Lessons for the admiral


ADM. CHARLES Larson, the retired Naval Academy superintendent, learned a lesson in command leadership last week: In Annapolis, the rules of Washington -- and the Pentagon -- don't apply.

The practices of Maryland's governors and legislators differ greatly from the modus operandi of politicians and military leaders in the nation's capital.

The admiral, as chairman of a task force studying Maryland higher education, learned on the job. He proved a quick study on issues affecting the University System of Maryland's 11 campuses.

He impressed task force members with his leadership skills and his eagerness to find consensus. But at the last minute, he lost control of the process largely because of his State House inexperience.

As a result, two pivotal campuses, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the University of Maryland, Baltimore, were ignored when the task force took its funding votes. The admiral rushed the panel through its final voting session without crucial information he needed.

Here's what the admiral should have known (but didn't). Historically, blue-ribbon commissions in Maryland allow the chairman and top officials to work out in advance the desired result. That's particularly true when it comes to money proposals.

For instance, every commission that has studied state funding for public schools in the past three decades has consulted the governor on how much money would realistically be available.

True, Admiral Larson spoke with Gov. Parris Glendening about the direction the governor would like to see the task force go, but he failed to ask the key question: "By the way, governor, when we issue our report, how much money do we have to play with?"

Without that number, the admiral was sailing into uncharted waters.

By way of comparison, another panel spent the summer rewriting the state's ethics laws. The chairman, Rep. Ben Cardin, made sure he knew exactly what top legislators expected as the outcome. So he steered the commission firmly in that direction. No questions went unanswered.

The admiral was hindered by the panel's late start. The governor should have had the task force in place by early summer. It didn't begin hearings until Oct. 20. By the final voting last week, ,, funding issues had not been researched or debated.

They had run out of time -- or so the admiral assumed. He erred there, too.

The report could have been delayed until the group received all needed data on funding its top priorities in future years without leaving out key campuses.

Unknown to the admiral, the group's late start meant the task force could not affect the governor's 1999 budget bill, which is already being printed. When this was mentioned in the final hours of last week's voting session, it seemed to take the admiral by surprise. Still, he pushed on with the ill-fated funding discussions.

"It's a cockamamie way of doing this," said Del. Nancy Kopp, of Montgomery County, a veteran of education battles who knows how the game is played in Annapolis.

"We ignored the entire process we outlined," said a frustrated Jeffrey Springer, a bank executive who had taken the lead in advocating a rational, business-like approach to running state colleges.

Until the funding blunder, the task force had done an admirable job of streamlining Maryland's higher education system; making the Maryland Higher Education Commission a true oversight panel; shifting power from the regents and UMS chancellor to the campus presidents; and setting priorities for the system. Those recommendations will form the basis for solid legislation.

But when it comes to funding university priorities, the task force's work won't carry much weight. The governor has made his decisions for his 1999 budget. UMBC and UMB will put strong pressure on influential lawmakers to get their own future funding on the table, too.

The starting point for a long-range university spending plan is contained in a bill that passed the legislature last session and was sponsored by state Sen. Barbara Hoffman. How to add to the Hoffman funding mandates is the question. Sadly, the governor and lawmakers won't be able to turn to the task force report for much guidance.

A5 Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor.

Pub Date: 12/30/98

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