A legacy of steady leadership

ADELPHI — ADELPHI - At one corner of Donald N. Langenberg's desk at University System of Maryland headquarters here is a folder labeled "Issues for Brit."

So far, it isn't stuffed, but Langenberg says he'll add material before he leaves the chancellor's office April 30 and the chancellor's mansion in northwest Baltimore County not long thereafter. Retiring at 70, Langenberg hands the chancellorship and the house to William E. "Brit" Kirwan, 63, lured back to Maryland after a four-year term as president of Ohio State University.


Langenberg served 12 years in a job created when Maryland reorganized its higher education system in 1988. During that time, the system budget nearly doubled to $2.7 billion. Ditto the chancellor's salary, to $340,000.

Langenberg earned it. The 1988 legislation created a job without power over the operation of individual campuses, yet one charged with leading the Maryland system to "national eminence, with each component fulfilling a distinct and complementary mission."


At times during Langenberg's tenure, the system seemed more like a national battle, with each component firing missiles at the others. But the 11-campus system appears well on its way toward eminence. Indeed, there's a national buzz about the Maryland system, particularly its professional schools in Baltimore, its flagship in College Park, its burgeoning online University College and its brash young UMBC. Give Langenberg a share of the credit.

Credit him also with surviving. Higher education politics are highly vicious (perhaps, as someone joked, because the stakes are so low). Langenberg has served two governors (one of whom wanted to succeed him) and a host of regents, some with their own agendas and fangs.

Langenberg doesn't have the charisma of his predecessor, John S. Toll, or of Kirwan. He comes across as a stiff technocrat who'd rather discuss the history of higher education than last week's Terps game. Maybe that's because he's a physicist by training, a man who knows how systems work. There's an air of self-sufficiency about Langenberg that may derive from his growing up as the only child of deaf parents in a small town in North Dakota. American Sign Language was his first language. English, which he uses with the precision of a scientist, was his second.

In an interview in his office, in which Langenberg declined to discuss "too current" events like the recent forced resignation of Towson University President Mark L. Perkins, he said he was particularly proud of advances at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, "which 30 years ago was behind Johns Hopkins by most measures but now is better than Hopkins in some fields. Baltimore is now one of the few cities in the world with two major academic health centers."

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County "has become a household word in American education," Langenberg said, "in large part because of the leadership of its president," Freeman A. Hrabowski III. Langenberg had a less pleasant relationship with the 22-year president of Towson University, Hoke L. Smith, who was forced out two years ago after publicly complaining about Towson's state funding and hinting he'd like to leave the system.

"As a generality," Langenberg said cautiously, "when institutions and leaders are together for many decades, it's probably not good for the institution or the leaders. Even Ted [Theodore M.] Hesburgh [longtime president of the University of Notre Dame] felt it was prudent to retire."

But Langenberg leaves office unapologetic about the comparatively generous funding of the system's College Park and downtown Baltimore campuses over that of Towson and others. It's an excusable inequality, the chancellor said. Campuses that carry on expensive research require more funding than those that don't. "That's a fact of academic life," Langenberg said, "that's pushing College Park into the big leagues with the likes of Michigan and Berkeley."

In retirement, Langenberg and his wife, Pat, will live in what has been their vacation home in Queenstown and maintain an apartment in Baltimore, where she is a professor of epidemiology and preventive medicine at UMB. The chancellor said he would travel and write "and stay close, still involved with the K-16 initiative," a program he launched that seeks to create seamless education in Maryland from kindergarten through college.


Accomplishments? "Survival is indicative of something, and maybe a modicum of success, consistency, honesty, a certain amount of courage, a willingness to listen."

And he'll be watching Kirwan. Just as Maryland can't have two flagship universities, he said, "the flagship university can't have two presidents."