College Park aspires to join elite; U. of Maryland sights still set high after a decade of striving

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In 1988, the General Assembly gave the University of Maryland, College Park an assignment -- grow into one of the top public universities in the nation.

A decade later, after a fall full of meetings by a task force studying the state's system of higher education, the legislature will again consider legislation with that same goal.

Many point to funding failures and bureaucratic handcuffs as keeping the state's flagship institution from rising to the level of its "aspirational peers" -- esteemed public universities like the University of North Carolina, University of Michigan and University of California at Berkeley.

"College Park absolutely hasn't made progress. There's been a leveling off," said Thomas V. Mike Miller, the Prince George's County Democrat and state Senate president who is considered the campus' most powerful ally in the legislature. "That's why we had the task force."

Others, at College Park and elsewhere, think the campus has improved greatly over the past 10 years, but gets little credit for its progress -- in large part because Maryland has no heritage of pride in its public colleges and universities.

"We are Maryland, we are not Virginia or North Carolina or Michigan," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat who helped write the 1988 legislation and a key member of this fall's task force.

"We are a state with a tradition of strong, prestigious private institutions, like Johns Hopkins. That's not true in those states," she said. "You have to remember, it wasn't that long ago that about anyone who graduated from high school could go to College Park. That's not true any more, but it takes time to change those perceptions."

Patricia S. Florestano, state secretary of higher education, agreed. "Under [former president William E. Kirwan] the school made incredible strides over the last 10 years," she said. "People in the state are actually less aware of that than people outside the state."

On campus, administrators point to the rise of programs like the engineering school. A decade ago, it hardly made the charts when such schools were ranked. In 1994, it was ranked 37th.

This year, the influential U.S. News & World Report rankings of graduate programs puts it 13th in the country -- sixth among public schools -- tied with Northwestern University and Princeton University and well ahead of the Johns Hopkins University in 21st place.

Lofty goal

"I think we can make it into the top 10," said William Destler, the dean of engineering, who has been at College Park since arriving as an assistant professor in 1973. He has taken a six-month leave from that post to head fund raising for the university, hoping to help the College Park campus achieve the kind of success the school of engineering has.

Destler and others enumerate the strong schools and departments at College Park; engineering, business, computer science, physics, mathematics, economics, journalism, education, criminology, government and politics, sociology, history and English are usually mentioned. The undergraduate honors program has received national acclaim.

On almost everybody's list, the top priority for strengthening is the biological sciences.

"You really can't be a top research university without strength in the life sciences," said school President C. D. "Dan" Mote Jr., who came to College Park in September after a career at Berkeley.

"We have to pick areas to build on where our strength is," said Provost Gregory L. Geoffrey. He explained that the university plans to have highly regarded faculty in engineering and computer science design academic programs that can be applied to the biological sciences.

"It's easier to get good people to come here when you are already good at something," explained Destler, whose new fund-raising job is the same one Mote, also an engineer, had in the administration at Berkeley before he came to Maryland.

There is general agreement that College Park's strength is uneven in the humanities and social sciences, and Destler wants to build a nationally recognized public policy program that takes advantage of the proximity of Washington.

He is confident that this can be done, in part by showing donors that underwriting an endowed professorship with a gift of $1 million or $2 million could have a major impact.

"There are places where we are just one or two people away," Destler said, referring to departments in need of faculty members. "The donors have to know that we can pull this off. Nobody wants to give money to a loser."

New attitude needed

Many at College Park say that the most important change will be in attitude.

"In Electrical Engineering where I came from, we developed a culture so if we were interviewing for a faculty position, we would only talk to Ph.Ds. from the top 10 institutions," Destler said. "A lot of other parts of the university don't have that kind of culture."

Mote noted one distinct difference from Berkeley: "I never hear anyone here start out a sentence saying, 'At Maryland, we do such and such,' meaning that's the way it should be done. At Berkeley, people were always saying, 'At Berkeley, we do it this way.' "

Many say a culture change is needed beyond the campus.

"I think the people in Maryland have to decide if they want a top-rate public research university," Mote said. "There has to be a recognition that without one, the state is dead in the water economically. These are the engines that drive economies."

Funding disappointments

Said Florestano: "Maryland is an affluent state, but it has not been overly generous to higher education. The 1988 legislation set funding levels for two years, but once the recession hit in the early '90s, that money was cut severely.

"Higher education is the largest portion of the state budget with nonmandated dollars," she said. "So when the state would get in trouble, that is where they would cut."

Florestano thinks that won't happen again. "If you take a scalpel to higher education now, there would be a strong outcry across the state. You didn't have that in 1991."

On campus, some credit the fiscal problems of the early '90s with helping the school.

"There was a lot of self-examination during that period," Destler said, noting that one school -- human ecology -- and several programs were eliminated. "We had to do some tough things that made us better in the long run. We are an extraordinarily lean institution."

Said former president Kirwan, who now heads Ohio State: "I think we were able to get the university through a difficult fiscal period without really losing the momentum we had."

Far to go

Kirwan agreed that College Park is better than its reputation within the state, but said it still has far to go.

"I know it is in the middle of a $350 million fund-raising campaign which is great progress, but at places like Michigan and Virginia and, if I may say so, Ohio State, they are raising $1 billion," he said. "We've raised over $800 million in two years."

Michael Hooker, chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill -- one of College Park's aspirational peers -- who was president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County from 1986 to 1992, said the atmosphere is completely different in a state where public colleges dominate.

"A couple of years ago, I visited every county in North Carolina," Hooker said. "In the most distant county, it was as though a celebrity had come to town. The mayor met me, there was a reception, people even asked for my autograph, if you can believe it. That's the esteem they have for Chapel Hill here and that translates directly into money from the legislature.

"That's true all over the South and in states like Michigan where the entire public leadership in government and business went to the state schools," he said. "They send their children to those schools. And those schools benefit from a higher level of public funding. It's a self-perpetuating phenomenon.

"And that's not the case in Maryland, where so much of the leadership went to Princeton or some other Ivy League school or Johns Hopkins. They don't have those ties to College Park," Hooker said.

Senate President Miller, who did go to Maryland, contends that College Park needs to be free of the University System of Maryland -- it is one of 11 campuses governed by the system -- so it can present its budget directly to the governor and legislature and raise funds for its own campus.

"The task force did not do enough in those areas," he said.

Hooker, whose school is also part of a statewide system, said such matters are not important.

"People try to make it difficult by tinkering with things like governance, but it is really very simple," he said. "You fund the university adequately, you get good leadership and you give them public support. You get those three ingredients and you will get a quality institution. You don't need anything else."

Despite the relative lack of support in Maryland, Mote thinks College Park is nearing the University of North Carolina in quality.

Gaining on the leaders

"We're almost there," he said of Chapel Hill. "We're not at Michigan yet, or Berkeley. That will take decades. Remember, in 1950, Berkeley had five Nobel laureates. Maryland didn't even have a Phi Beta Kappa chapter."

Destler, for one, is sure College Park can rise to the elite.

"We've got the best location," he said. "There's not a better place on the East Coast for a major public research institution than in the corridor between Washington and Baltimore. There's a tremendous opportunity here.

"Fifteen years ago, I was not sure we could do it," Destler said. "Five years ago I started to think we could pull it off in my lifetime.

"I think we've got about 10 years to do it," he said. "The economy is good, we're getting more state funding, the momentum is in the right direction. These windows don't stay open that long. You have to jump."

A front-page article yesterday about the University of Maryland, College Park was accompanied by a photograph wrongly identified as that of Clayton D. "Dan" Mote Jr., president of the university. It was instead a picture of Hoke Smith, president of Towson University. The Sun regrets the errors.

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