Loh makes the right call on Terps' Big Ten move

University of Maryland alumni and other Terp fans are understandably outraged by the sudden, secret decision to move from the Atlantic Coast Conference to the Big Ten. It's never good when public institutions exclude the public from even asking questions before decisions are made. Secrecy typically leads to worse decisions, since decision-makers deny themselves information.

But in this case, even though it was a bad process, the result made good sense.

I've watched UM College Park up close for three decades — 15 years as one of College Park's state legislators, five years as a regent of the University System, and 32 years as a local resident. As Maryland Senate President (and proud UM alum) Thomas V. Mike Miller likes to point out, the College Park campus is a very different place than it was in the 1950s and '60s.

Indeed, it is.

Students, faculty, staff and alums still cheer the Terps. But since 1988, when the legislature named College Park the "flagship campus," limited enrollment and began boosting state investment in its academic programs, it has become an academically focused, selective university — one of the top 20 public campuses in the United States.

Last year, the average freshman had a GPA higher than 4.0 and an SAT score of 1300 out of 1600. Faculty researchers brought more than $500 million in grants to Maryland.

And Wallace Loh, the current campus president, has kept his focus on the academic mission.

A few weeks before the Big Ten media frenzy, Mr. Loh announced a much more important UM partnership. The campus joined Stanford, Columbia, Penn and other top colleges in Coursera, "the Big Ten" of massive open online courses (MOOC's) which, together with the web more broadly, is revolutionizing education — boosting quality, expanding access and lowering costs. Coursera and its competitors distribute high-quality online courses from outstanding universities on the web. Thus, Maryland students can take many of the best courses from great universities all over the world — and Maryland professors can teach students all over the world as well. Because of the economies of scale (the course is created once but distributed on the web), it can be taken by hundreds of thousands of students at once, transcending the traditional limits of classroom sizes.

Now, that's a big deal. And Wallace Loh and the University of Maryland are leading the way.

The Big Ten switch, on the other hand, is just one example of resolving problems Mr. Loh inherited.

The Metro Purple Line — the Washington suburbs' gridlock-busting, smart growth-boosting light rail project — had been held up by the previous campus leadership. Mr. Loh learned the issues, developed consensus, and now UM College Park is a leading champion of this important regional economic development initiative.

For years, the campus had unsuccessfully focused its community development efforts narrowly on one parcel, "East Campus," while ignoring city and county visions of making College Park a top 20 college town to match its academic status. Mr. Loh shifted the campus' approach 180 degrees, endorsing a joint vision that will help attract and keep top faculty, researchers, staff and students. One of the first pieces of the plan is College Park Academy, the rigorous new public college prep school whose students will be able to earn up to 25 UM credits before they graduate from high school. Big changes for the better in development plans, public safety, transportation and sustainability are in the works.

Then there's the UM athletic program. Mr. Loh inherited a fiscal mess. Like too many others in the public and private sectors in the last decade, it was spending beyond its means — and headed toward a crash. Mr. Loh took ownership of the problem and made tough but necessary, decisions. He cut costs in nonrevenue sports and then, when the chance to boost revenue by switching to the Big Ten appeared, he grabbed it.

The secret decision-making process demanded by the Big Ten was wrong. But Mr. Loh's decision to move College Park from the ACC to the Big Ten was right. With UM focused on its academic mission and leading innovation in quality, access and affordability, the athletic program needed to become sustainably solvent, not a distraction. That's the real significance of the Big Ten decision.

Jim Rosapepe, a Democrat, represents College Park in the Maryland Senate and served from 2001 to 2006 on the University System of Maryland Board of Regents. His email is jcrosapepe@yahoo.com.

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