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Protecting, preserving Morgan State; Scrutiny: No public institution is sacrosanct, or exempt from governmental review -- and this is in the public's best interest.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

I HAVE RECEIVED calls and letters from many friends and alumni of Morgan State University over the past several weeks regarding the budget decisions that the House Appropriations Committee made about Morgan State and, ultimately, the decisions that were made by the entire House of Delegates and Senate of Maryland.

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Much of the information that has been circulating about those decisions has been misleading and often presented in a way that has caused some confusion and doubt about my commitment to Morgan State and other institutions that serve the African-American community.

As an alumnus, I am very proud of this exemplary institution. I have no doubt that Morgan State University will continue on this path of service and excellence while being responsive to the public interest, in particular the taxpayers of Maryland.

I concur with the conclusions of the comprehensive performance audit done by James L. Fisher Ltd. that:

"Today's Morgan State University is an institution of growing enrollment, an attractive and expanding physical plant and campus, an increasingly well-qualified student body, a clearly articulated and attractive urban mission, an expanding roster of graduate and professional programs, an increasingly strong political constituency, vastly improved fiscal controls, ubiquitous technology, and exceptionally capable leadership."

At the same time, in my responsibilities as an elected state representative and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, I have consistently subscribed to the following principles:

(1.) No institution that receives public funds is sacrosanct.

(2.) All public agencies that receive millions of taxpayer dollars should be, and will be, subject to public scrutiny.

I believe that such principles are important to Morgan State University's future, and are in the public's interest.

Many friends of Morgan State University are not aware that the university is seeking to be elevated to a higher mission level, known as Carnegie Classification Doctoral II, and that the university is not included in the higher education funding guidelines this year because the peers that seem appropriate for comparison to Morgan State University are inadequate, since the university's current funding level exceeds them.

ka10 For example, the Fisher review notes that Morgan's faculty salaries exceed its peers in the comprehensive public category at both the average and 60th percentile levels at every faculty rank, and are competitive, even at the 60th percentile level, with institutions in the public doctoral category, the classification to which Morgan aspires.

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I only mention this because, during my eight years as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, I have ensured that Morgan State has done quite well in both its operating and capital budgets.

Now let me lay out the facts that led to the budget language adopted this year.

In 1998, the General Assembly undertook a comprehensive review of the University System of Maryland 10 years after the system's creation.

Under the leadership of Admiral Charles Larson, U.S. Navy (Ret.), a joint Legislative-Executive Task Force spent many hours reviewing each campus of the system and the overall structure of the system.

The task force hired two consultants to examine the system's management and financing.

Members of the task force visited every system campus and reviewed their progress since 1988.

In addition, legislative members of the task force had private sessions with the presidents of the major system campuses and the Board of Regents.

As I noted, this was a very thorough and comprehensive review.

The outcome of this process was major legislation that accomplished two major objectives.

First, it restructured the system as a public corporation with greater autonomy, especially in management responsibilities for the campus presidents.

Second, unsatisfied with the level of State funding, the General Assembly directed the Maryland Higher Education Commission (MHEC) to develop new funding guidelines for public higher education, which included Morgan State University, with an essential component based on comparison of Maryland's institutions with appropriate national peers, both current and aspirational.

ka10 As I mentioned earlier, in developing the funding guidelines it was determined that Morgan State University measured very well in comparison with current and aspirational peers.

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The General Assembly has directed MHEC to continue working with Morgan to determine appropriate peers and include Morgan in the funding guidelines next year.

This year, Morgan received a 10 percent increase in its operating budget, in line with increases for the University System of Maryland campuses.

As the system legislation neared passage by the General Assembly in 1999, Morgan State University requested similar enhanced autonomy.

However, the House of Delegates would not agree to grant Morgan greater autonomy without a comprehensive review of Morgan similar to the review conducted of the system in 1998.

The need for a similar review of Morgan was the impetus behind my request for a performance audit of the university by staff of the Department of Legislative Services last summer.

It was also the reason that Morgan State's Board of Regents eventually hired James L. Fisher Ltd. to conduct a review of the university, which was completed in February.

What the Appropriations Committee did this year and the impact on Morgan State are important questions to answer.

First, neither the Appropriations Committee nor the House of Delegates cut Morgan's budget by $1 million.

In fact, the reality is that historically the House of Delegates via the Appropriations Committee has been more generous to Morgan's budget than the Senate.

Second, the Appropriations Committee adopted budget language that withheld $1 million pending receipt of a strategic action plan by the university that addresses the 36 recommendations of the Fisher review.

Once the action plan was developed, as early as July 1 (the first day of the fiscal year), the funds would have been made available to Morgan.

This is standard procedure that the budget committees apply to state agencies when we have a strong interest in making sure that an agency follows through on an issue of significant concern to the committees.

Part of the reality of the situation is that Morgan has been a reluctant participant in conducting a comprehensive review of the University 10 years after the 1988 reorganization of public higher education, when I and others fought to keep Morgan as an independent campus and not part of the University System of Maryland.

This question was raised again in 1998 during the Larson task force's work, and again I and others supported keeping Morgan independent as its own system.

The final resolution in the General Assembly this year was that the House of Delegates and the Senate jointly decided not to withhold any funds from Morgan, but to require a strategic action plan to be submitted by October 15, 2000.

I hope this clarifies some of the misinformation that you have received concerning my actions with respect to Morgan State University.

The review we sought for Morgan State University was appropriate given that it is its own university system.

Moreover, Morgan State University has very legitimate ambitions and we have a public duty to ensure that the university is primed to soar to the next level.

It is unfortunate that some of my misguided colleagues in the Senate, who rose to the senate floor and proclaimed Morgan State sacrosanct, believe that Morgan is above public scrutiny.

If Morgan State University is going to continue to thrive and assume an even greater vision of service to the African-American community and Maryland, it can only do this in partnership with accountability.

Del. Howard P. Railings is the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

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