Maryland's Commissioner of Higher Education said yesterday he has rejected a recommendation that the predominantly black University of Maryland Eastern Shore be shut down because it costs too much to operate.

Instead, said Dr. Sheldon H. Knorr, he will recommend that the State Board of Higher Education create a task force to explore possibilities of merging University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES), with predominantly white Salisbury State College, 12 miles away.

Knorr's announcement came six weeks after a study by a legislative budget analyst argued that enrollment at the 300-acre UMES campus in Princess Anne had shrunk to the point where continued operation was no longer economically justified.

"The Board wanted to assure all employees and students at UMES at the closing option has been rejected," Knorr said.

Staff members of the Board of Higher Education said Knorr spoke out because publicity over the closing recommendation had created a "panic atmosphere" at the UMES among students, faculty, and parents.

Earlier, officials had complained that the closing recommendation would make it difficult for the already hard-pressed institution to recruit students. Enrollment at UMES, the legislative report noted, has fallen from 956 to 759 in the last two years while at Salisbury State it increased from 2,248 to 2,599 in the same period.

Knorr said he would recommend creation of the study task force at next month's meeting of the Board of higher Education. The group will focus primarily on UMES and Salisbury State, he said, but it also will consider what roles community colleges and vocational schools on the lower Eastern Shore should play.

If the group concludes that merger into one institution is "found to be desirable and feasible, legislation would be proposed to the General Assembly for implementation" he said.

In urging that UMES be shut down, the legislative study noted that per student costs have risen to $6,631 - the highest in the state system except for the professional schools of the University of Maryland at Baltimore. At Salisbury State per student costs are $3,041 - less than half the level of UMES.

Additionally, the study noted, UMEs faces a bleak recruiting future and it may be hurt by a newly-imposed 15 per cent limit on the number of out-of-state students it can admit. Currently, 33 per cent of the UMES students are from out of state.

Publication of the study triggered a storm of criticism from black officials around the state who urged that UMES not he closed and from Somerset County officials who feared the cripple their already depressed economy.

Founded in the late 19th Century as a high school for blacks, UMES has been part of the state system since 1919. For years, it was part of the black segregated state college system and was plagued by chronic problems of low academic standards and under funding.

With the outlawing of segregation in 1954, the existence of a predominanatly black college at Princess Anne and a predominantly white one at Salisbury became increasingly embarrassing for Maryland education officials. They attempted to resolve it in 1970 by making the Princess Ann campus part of the University, up grading it and attempting to attract white students.