In the last 15 years, the state has devoted an unusual amount of time to studying higher education in general and the University of Maryland in particular. In 1988 the General Assembly decided to end the budgetary infighting among Maryland's universities by organizing them into a centrally administered system. Legislators believed that this was the most rational method for improving the former teachers colleges that constituted much of the new system, sustaining faltering institutions that served minorities, and securing a bigger piece of the overall state budgetary pie.
Morgan State University, a historically black college, and St. Mary's fought successfully to remain outside the system, arguing that this was the only way to preserve their distinctive identities.
The legislation designated College Park as the flagship of the new system, but some of the university's supporters were not satisfied. "I wanted College Park out of the system, but I didn't have the political muscle," says Sen. Miller. "College Park was kept in to give credibility to the system."
The immediate effects of the legislation were beneficial. The state pumped new revenue into the system, and university presidents spent it happily. "As one of our deans said, "These are magic times at College Park,' " President William E. "Brit" Kirwan wrote to O'Malley in 1989. But the following year a recession hit Maryland's economy, and state funding was cut dramatically.
By the time the university unveiled its Strategic Plan in 1996, Kirwan's tone had darkened. There were "serious deficiencies in the quality of many campus classrooms and laboratories," he wrote, and financial problems had "impaired our ability to retain the services of highly qualified staff and to compete effectively for outstanding faculty and students."
Increased spending in the late 1980s had "raised the level of [Maryland's] academic quality to the point where it is now within striking distance of the top tier of America's public research universities," he added. "The stagnation of our traditional sources of revenue now threatens not only to halt this process of improvement but to undo many of the gains we have made."
By "traditional sources," Kirwan meant state revenue. Maryland relies much more heavily than Virginia does on the state to finance its operations. Although 3 percent of the state's adult population attended the university, alumni giving is low, the university has a small endowment, and it has been much slower than Virginia's institutions in forming partnerships with private industry.
"Almost all of the institutions in Virginia have a reputation for being innovative in their own right," says Charles Lenth, director of policy studies at the Education Commission for the States, a nonpartisan group that specializes in education policy. "You look at Maryland and what you see are a bunch of institutions complaining that they are underfunded."
Miller sees the university's funding problems as further evidence that College Park will never realize its aspirations to greatness as long as it is "saddled in a system with a lot of former teachers colleges."
He prefers the go-it-alone approach of St. Mary's College. The college's current and former trustees include Paul Nitze, the former arms control negotiator, Benjamin C. Bradlee, former executive editor of The Washington Post, and other wealthy and well-connected Washingtonians who have bolstered St. Mary's reputation and its fund-raising capabilities. College Park should have the opportunity to cultivate the same advantages, Miller argues.
Chancellor Langenberg would also like to see Maryland's institutions strengthen their fund-raising operations, and develop distinctive academic identities. But he believes that systemwide planning to avoid duplication of tasks and services is essential to these tasks. Thirty-eight states have centrally administered university systems, he points out, including California and North Carolina, whose public institutions are among the most highly regarded in the country.
"It is the model way of organizing higher education in this country," he says.
Currently, several of Maryland's institutions are better known for the areas they serve than for the courses they offer. The University of Maryland-Eastern Shore serves a primarily rural constituency and must tailor its academic offerings accordingly. Salisbury State, on the Eastern Shore, and Frostburg State, in Western Maryland, also serve as state-sponsored local universities of sorts.
Several of the state's other institutions are just beginning to build reputations based on academic specialties. Bowie State University graduates more black students with degrees in information technology than any other institution in the country, Langenberg says. Maryland's University College in College Park runs the largest distance-learning program in the country, and the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, under President Freeman Hrabowski, is making its mark as an institution that trains students-especially black students-for graduate study in science and medicine.
But Towson University, in a suburb north of Baltimore, may be the institution that best reflects the changing shape of higher education in Maryland. A teachers college until 1963, it now offers degrees in 48 undergraduate majors and has an enrollment of about 13,000 full-time undergraduates and graduates. When the University of Maryland toughened its standards in the early 1990s, many students who had hoped to matriculate at College Park ended up at Towson.
"Growth is good," says President Hoke L. Smith, who had also hoped to pull his institution out of the university system. "But you can grow into poverty if the resources don't keep pace."
The University of Maryland, with an enrollment of about 32,000 at College Park, is among the largest campuses in the country. Like other large campuses, such as Michigan State and Ohio State, it can seem a cold and impersonal place. Its introductory courses enroll as many as 500 students.
Seeking to address the problem, the university restructured its Honors Program in 1990. Four years later it began the College Park Scholars Program. Both initiatives had a similar aim: to provide a more academically challenging program to top high school students, the kind that Maryland, until recent years, had had trouble attracting. Perhaps more importantly, these programs created small communities within the larger community of the freshman class. In so doing, they helped students to experience the campus as a smaller, friendlier place.
The university has also opened theme-oriented residence halls for students with similar intellectual concerns. And its new Gemstone Program brings together a group of about 15 students from a variety of disciplines to work on real-world problems such as prison reform or environmental degradation.
"There is an energy in those courses that is hard to match," says Charles F. Wellford, a professor of criminal justice. "I love teaching them."
Maryland, once regarded as a Kmart, is beginning to acquire an aura, at least for its better students, as a collection of learning boutiques. And although the university lacks an outstanding overall reputation, Maryland has no trouble attracting students who are drawn to specific programs in which the university excels.
Take Ben Sanders, a young Tennessean, who has donned a blazer and a tie for his tour of the campus. He is looking for an institution with strong programs in piano and dairy farming. Maryland, Wisconsin and Cornell are on his short list.
Debbie Dombrowski and her friend Jaclyn Mazzurco from Long Island are interested in early childhood education, and they've heard such good things about Maryland from their friends that they aren't seriously considering anyplace else.
Tour guide Remy Shaffer isn't surprised. "I'll be honest with you," she says when the kids on her tour aren't listening. "Maryland was totally a "safe' school for me. But it has changed so much since I have been here. It has gotten so much better.
"I think we are right on the cusp of something."
Students are pouring out of classes and hurrying to others as Adriana Montalzo leads her troops along a narrow sidewalk at U-Va.
It is a big place, Adriana, a fourth-year student from Richmond, tells them. "But if you come here you will find that it is not that daunting. You will not be one among many. A worker ant."
But it isn't so much being at Virginia that potential students find daunting. It's getting in.
Matt Andrews, a senior at Robert E. Lee High School in Springfield, says he'd love to come to Virginia, but he knows that it is difficult to get in. He says only the top 10 or 12 students in the class are applying to U-Va., and that those same kids are applying to Ivy League schools. For himself, he is also applying to Delaware, Virginia Tech and a few small colleges where he might be able to make the baseball team.
Libby Davis from Hudson, Ohio, is applying to Duke, the University of North Carolina, Johns Hopkins and Miami of Ohio, as well as U-Va. She hopes to pursue premed studies, and she'd much prefer Virginia to her home-state school. But she is trying to be realistic.
"My guidance counselor said you should apply to one school where you know that you can get in and pay the bill," she says.
At their meeting with the admissions officers, Libby and the others learned that Virginia accepts 45 percent of its in-state applicants, and only 20 percent of those from out of state.
The rigorous admissions process helps give the University of Virginia something that the University of Maryland is trying desperately to create: an aura. "These kids definitely have a sense that they are part of something special," education school dean Breneman says. "And they really dote on this place."
Though the university offers more than 90 majors, and although one-third of its 18,000 students are pursuing graduate degrees, the campus has the look and feel of a cozier kind of place, he says.
The key to Virginia's ability to maintain this atmosphere can be summarized in two words: Virginia Tech.
Although it bears the state's name, and receives state funds, Mr. Jefferson's institution is not Virginia's land-grant university. Virginia Tech is. Which means that Tech, rather than U-Va., was built on land donated to the state by the federal government; that Tech bears the federal mandate to educate great masses of young Virginians in marketable skills; and that Tech receives a hefty annual federal allocation specifically for that purpose.
Happily for state residents, Tech has done this without becoming a typical Large State University. Its technical programs, while not as well-regarded as those at MIT or Caltech, are among the best; it has an outstanding computer science program, and no institution has used the Internet more creatively in the classroom. Though Virginia Tech does not have the same sort of reputation as U-Va. or William and Mary, its programs have allowed U-Va. and William and Mary to concentrate on improving their already-strong programs in the arts and sciences rather than on becoming all things to all students.
"One of the things I have become persuaded of is that allowing each institution to do what it does best really serves the state well," says Edward L. Ayers, a historian who is chair of the Faculty Senate at U-Va. "Each school has found something that it contributes that another school doesn't."
The result, he says, is "the individuality of a private school with the low cost of a public."
William and Mary exemplifies this tradition. It is one of few state-sponsored liberal arts colleges in the country-St. Mary's is another-and by most accounts, it is the best.
"We are providing for our students from Virginia an education effectively at an Ivy League level at one-third to one-quarter of the cost," says Timothy Sullivan, the college's president. "And there isn't another institution in the country that does exactly what we do.
"If we were brought into a state system, a certain level of standardization would be inevitable, and our uniqueness would be diluted."
Virginia's decentralized system, in which each college stands or falls on its own, has also made it easier for entrepreneurial presidents to put smaller colleges on the map quickly. When George Johnson began his two decades as president of George Mason University in 1978, Mason was a struggling commuter school with little visibility outside Fairfax.
With the help of Til Hazel, Johnson raised substantial amounts of money and used much of it to raid other faculties' star professors. In short order the university became the equivalent of a so-so sports team with a few well-known stars who command the attention of the media, and of fans.
"It was an institution that was better known than it was good," says Gordon Davies, who served for 20 years as director of Virginia's State Council on Higher Education. "They did it basically with brass and public relations. If you listen to public radio, it is astonishing how often it is some guy from George Mason University."
The attention brought rising enrollments, increased contributions, and established George Mason as an institution on the rise.
In Harrisonburg, Ronald E. Carrier, chancellor of James Madison University, took a different tack. ""He knew what kind of institution that Mom and Dad wanted to send their kids to and he knew how to create it," Davies says. "What he did was create a place that was safe, that was exciting, that had a really pleasing aesthetic. He showed an uncanny skill at knowing what students wanted and was able to keep morale very high."
The result was another large college-this one with 14,000 students-that had a small college feel.
Davies says he isn't sure whether Johnson and Carrier could have accomplished what they did in a more centralized system.
There is little question that Virginia's system has made the "entrepreneurial university" look awfully attractive to governors around the country who are trying to improve their educational systems without investing a great deal of money. This accentuates the paradox implicit in the current debate in Virginia in which conservative Republicans are pushing to tighten the government's control of the universities while academics and their liberal allies defend the "small government" approach that currently prevails.
"I would like to discourage any concept of the university as a large, freestanding corporation that happens to get state money," says Gov. Gilmore. "The public owns these institutions."
The most prominent casualty of this ideological skirmishing is Davies. He was forced out of office in 1997 because of ideological differences with council members appointed by then-Gov. George Allen. Davies, who is now president of the Kentucky Council on Higher Education, argues that many of those whom Gilmore and Allen have appointed to oversight positions are less interested in improving the quality of the state's institutions than in opening a new front in the culture wars. "The irony is that the conservative ideology is hostile to government," he says. "But when it comes to higher education, its instinct is to control right down to a gnat's eye."
University administrators have attempted to steer clear of these scuffles. But several presidents have been unsettled by the appointments that Gilmore and Allen have made to their school's Board of Visitors. Virginia's institutions have typically relied upon their visitors to help them raise money. The success of their private fund-raising efforts is the principal reason that Virginia, which ranks just 39th in state expenditures per pupil, boasts one of the best higher education systems in the country. However, the presidents say that under Gilmore their boards have not played as important a role in fund-raising, and the result might be to leave institutions more dependent on the state.
The governor responds that these presidents misunderstand the visitors' role. "The members of the Board of Visitors are not just there for window dressing," he says. "They are not there primarily to raise money. They have a fiduciary responsibility to the people of Virginia." He adds, "I want people who are independent, who will not be co-opted by cocktail parties, football games and other kinds of entertainment."
Ed Ayers, the historian who chairs the Faculty Senate at Virginia, finds these kinds of remarks "befuddling."
"There is all of this language about accountability and oversight, when by any estimation these universities are a great bargain," he says. "We are the only state in the country with four schools in the top 25 of the best bargains in higher education. That we would need a blue-ribbon commission to come in and examine what might be wrong strikes me as counterintuitive."
"I think everybody looks good in red," Remy Shaffer says by way of goodbye. "And I'd love to see you all here next year as Terrapins."
The parents and students cluster around to thank her, and, if their feelings at that moment are any indication, many of the students will end up in College Park.
"They did all the little things right," says David Greenwald of Phoenixville, Pa., holding up the free cup of coffee that he was given in the dining hall. "I visited Penn State and that seemed like a much colder place."
Despite the dickering over how the system should be organized, the perennial concerns over state funding, and spirited differences about whether the smaller institutions are holding the university back, these are good times in College Park.
One reason is that the university's reputation within academia has improved faster than its reputation with the general public.
"When I looked at this place from a distance, it is a remarkably good job to have," says Clayton D. Mote, a former vice chancellor at the University of California at Berkeley who succeeded Brit Kirwan as the university's president last year. "There has been a tremendous rise in the last decade in terms of the quality of students, and in its national reputation," he says.
Another reason for the optimism at Maryland is that the university has a friend in the statehouse. Gov. Parris N. Glendening has indicated that he will steer as much money toward College Park and other institutions as possible.
"We've made a $635 million commitment over four years to our universities," Glendening says. "And on top of that we've added $102 million on the operating side at College Park for this year, and we are proposing an additional $17 million in the supplemental budget."
Charles Lenth of the Education Commission of the States says outside experts have warned that "College Park can't just buy its way into the same category as Berkeley." He argues that the university needs to focus less attention on becoming an elite institution and more on how it teaches introductory classes and makes the resources of the university available to students.
Ask the governor if the University of Maryland will ever rival the University of Virginia and the once and future professor speaks up quickly for the home team.
"The University of Virginia has a great reputation that goes back to Thomas Jefferson, as anyone from Virginia will tell you," Glendening says. "But quite candidly, the University of Maryland is, in my opinion, far, far superior in the areas that will determine the economy of the future: business, technology, engineering and computer sciences. Far, far superior."
U-Va. President John Casteen avoids such direct comparisons. But he chaired the committee that evaluated College Park for the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools in 1997, and he was impressed by what he saw.
"I think what is interesting about College Park is that the place is taking off like a rocket. When you start asking questions about the next 25 years, College Park is very well deployed."
One advantage that Maryland currently holds over Virginia is its standing as a research institution. The University of Maryland ranks 39th among all universities, public and private, in the volume of federally or privately funded research that it performs. Virginia Tech and Virginia rank 51st and 55th, respectively. "Virginia is not a great research power," says Mote. "It is not anybody we want to be like."
Had Mote made those comments to the students who toured the Virginia campus with Adriana Montalzo they would have looked at him with disbelief. Most were applying to schools that they considered out of Maryland's league. And one young woman, Berenice Fouchard of Haiti, was so smitten by the Charlottesville campus that she said she would rather attend Virginia than any of the private colleges in New England that she had visited last summer.
"The only Maryland school I considered was Johns Hopkins," says Libby Davis, the aspiring premed student from Ohio.
Yet for all the accolades that Virginia's institutions have received, there are those who are decidedly worried about the future of higher education in the state.
"The future of Virginia depends on intellectual commitment," says Til Hazel. "When you don't have an adequate research system you can't serve anybody."
He traces the problem to the recession of the early 1990s. "In 1991, when the world went to hell in a handbasket, the state balanced its budgets by cutting spending on higher education and urging the institutions to increase tuition," he says. "If you look at the Consumer Price Index, the level of state support still isn't back to where it was in 1990. We are still scraping for dollars."
Hazel says the state's funding policies have been particularly difficult on growing institutions such as George Mason. "That university is starving," he says. "How much longer can they make a silk purse out of a sow's ear?"
William and Mary's Timothy Sullivan, who is also president of the state's Council of Presidents, puts his concerns more delicately. "If we can't sustain a higher level of investment, a decade from now we are not going to have the same quality that we have today," he says. "Right now we are benefiting from investments made at an earlier time."
But Gilmore denies that the state is scrimping on higher education. "There is no evidence that there has been any diminution of support to Virginia's universities, even during the recession," he says. And he points out that his decision to cut tuition and make up the shortfall with state revenue will increase the state's spending per pupil.
"Maybe we will move up in some of those rankings, and that will make some people happy," he says.
Gilmore says that he is determined to improve the quality of all the state's institutions, particularly those that have been struggling, such as Norfolk State and Virginia State, and those that may just be beginning to realize their promise, such as Old Dominion and Virginia Commonwealth.
"I'm okay with pouring money in if that is what it takes," he says. "But I want it to be supported by the facts. These resources are not bottomless."
Yet educators like Ed Ayers still worry. "How much is it worth to be able to say that Virginia has the best public higher education in the country?" he asks. "How would it feel to say we did have it, but it went into decline?"
President Mote of Maryland suggests that even in a worst-case scenario, institutions like U-Va. and William and Mary would not face this problem for some time to come. Reputations tend to develop after the fact, he says.
"Certain institutions could close their doors tomorrow and still be thought of as among the best for a decade afterwards."
And from where he sits, maintaining one's lustrous reputation seems like a good problem to have.
Jim Naughton last wrote for the Magazine about the Boy Choristers of the Washington National Cathedral.