Md. regents overstepped role, but that's a rarity

Perhaps it is time to put some perspective on the recent unfortunate activities of the Board of Regents of the University System of Maryland (“Dump Maryland’s Chancellor and Regents,” Nov. 6). I write this as a former member of the board who served an unusually lengthy term of 15 years. During that time, I served with over 60 men and women, most of whom were outstanding citizens. We very seldom made the papers as we went about serving the needs of the state’s public four-year campuses.

Let us take a look at what such boards do. Across the country, colleges and universities, public and private, are run by boards — known as directors, regents or trustees. They are almost universally selected in the same way as Maryland’s: gubernatorial appointment and senate confirmation. (In a very few states, they must stand for election.) Private colleges and universities have a self-selection process that does not include the state.

Historically, as states began to create public institutions, it is significant that in doing so, they did not place these new entities under direct state control such as is used for highways or prisons. Instead, they turned to the private colleges’ experience with appointed boards. Thus, the states established a process that would reinforce an arms-length relationship between the partisan state power and those who actually ran public higher education. Although governors have the power of appointment, the staggered, fixed terms of the board members serve to cut down on political interference. Over the years, our institutions have continued to operate under this sort of indirect control. Trustees are supposed to both assure the outside world that the institutions are being competently governed and to protect them from inappropriate external interference.

I write this in detail to point out that the process generally works quite well. I say generally because it is clear that the decision of the board this year to involve itself in oversight of the athletic program at the University of Maryland was a mistake. In this case, the Board of Regents violated a basic premise of such boards. Their job is oversight of the system, management and policy-making for the system. The board hires and fires the presidents of each campus. It determines the budget for each campus. But — and it is a very important “but” — the president of each campus is responsible for running his or her own campus, including the hiring and firing of all campus personnel. By stepping in to direct the president’s actions with regard to athletic personnel, the board overstepped its role.

Having said that, it is time to put this episode in perspective. Over the years, this arrangement for higher education governance has proved to be a sound one producing good results. The University System of Maryland has never been stronger. Each of the 12 campuses is providing an excellent education to thousands of students. Competition for undergraduate admission is intense. The quality of the research is highly regarded and rewarded by record grants and contracts. Most of the institutions show up well on various rankings.

Let’s acknowledge that a mistake was made, a rare one, and move on. No one in higher education has come up with a better system for running our colleges and universities.

Patricia S. Florestano, Annapolis

The writer is a former Maryland Secretary of Higher Education.

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