Politically Connected Regents will decide fate of USM

One of the stories that has gone underrated until recently has been the search for a new Chancellor of the University System of Maryland. Brit Kirwin is leaving the powerful and lucrative ($518,000 yearly salary) position to do something else, and the University System Regents are in the market for a new Chancellor.

This isn’t a small deal for taxpayers in the state of Maryland. The 2015 University System Budget shows that the System is a $5.1 billion enterprise that employs almost 29,000 people. The USM budget constitutes 13% of the operating budget, and is responsible for the biggest of our state institutions of higher education. 168,000 students are part of the University System. Everybody either knows somebody who attends a USM school or has their degree from a USM school.

Let’s just say that the selection of Chancellor is a big deal.

An article in Thursday’s Sun highlighted the challenges that face the Board of Regents in selecting a candidate. It is an unenviable task to be sure. It would appear the the candidate that everybody wants is Freeman Hrabowski, President of UMBC, and he wants nothing to do with the position:

Hrabowski, who has led UMBC to national prominence in his 22 years as president, said he would not be considered as a candidate for the chancellor’s job.

He said he has been wooed over the years by “public and private institutions” with “invitations to discuss possibilities” but that he has long been happy to stay at UMBC, where he earned a salary of $428,800 last year. 

“My decision to not be considered has more to do with my commitment to UMBC than anything else. I think the chancellor’s position is a great opportunity,” Hrabowski said. “Each person has to decide what’s important to him or her. … It’s simply a personal choice.”

Notwithstanding a draft effort as suggested by the Sun Editorial Board, that will leave the Regents looking elsewhere. Ultimately it means the Regents will have to decide if the next Chancellor is should be somebody who is an educator or comes from a different walk of life. To me, there are pitfalls to both. Hiring an educator may be bringing in somebody who is familiar with higher education, but not politically savvy or, worse, not open to new ideas in higher education. Hiring somebody outside of the higher education might bring a lot of gravitas, but could bringing forth somebody who is not familiar with higher ed policy or might bring about unwanted attention (like the University of California system hiring Janet Napolitano, for example).
There are a number of issues that the new USM Chancellor is going to have to face, including that bloated $5 billion budget that spends more on staff salaries and benefits than they do on classroom instruction, as well as competition from private for-profit education institutions. And that’s what concerns me about the Regents making this selection.

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The position of Regent is one of the sexier sinecures that a Governor can hand out to influential supporters. Governor O’Malley is no exception. Members of the Board include donors who have given almost $150,000 to O’Malley, Brown and other Democrats (click here to see a chart of all of the donations). It also includes a former Congressmana former State Senator,  O’Malley’s former Deputy Chief of Staff, and prominent Baltimore minister Frank Reid.  That fact is of great concern to me, as it opens up the likelihood that the Regents will select somebody who is an ill-prepared Democratic functionary instead of a qualified educator or qualified business leader.

The Regents selection of Chancellor will have a huge impact on the direction of public higher education for the next ten years. We should all be watching…

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