The Maryland State Board for Higher Education today approved a plan for reorganizing the state university system that would keep all existing campuses open but would expand the number of governing boards responsible for them.

The board's plan came as a surprise to some legislators and university officials and is likely to touch off a protracted political battle over the future of Maryland's financially drained higher education system. The plan promotes further decentralization of the educational bureaucracy, and on those grounds it is sure to be criticized by proponents of a centralized governing board that would unify the operation of state schools.

At present the four-year colleges are the responsibility of a single governing board. The University of Maryland, with its five campuses, has an independent board of regents, as do several other schools, such as Morgan State University and St. Mary's College.

While the board recommended more governing bodies, it also called for consolidating the resources and faculties of some neighboring institutions in order to do away with costly "duplication."

Perhaps most controversial is a recommendation to merge the governing boards of two historically black schools, Morgan State University and Coppin State College, both located in Baltimore.

Black legislators have fought the assimilation of Morgan State into a unified state system because they feel that such a union would destroy the school's traditional identity, and it is possible they will oppose a merger with Coppin for the same reasons.

The board has proposed a similar joining of the University of Maryland's Eastern Shore campus and Salisbury State College. In the past, there has been debate over whether Coppin State and U.M. at Eastern Shore should be kept open.

If approved by the state legislature and the governor, the board's plan theoretically would give more autonomy and political clout to four-year colleges -- excluding those that are part of the University of Maryland -- by creating a distinct governing board for each school. This would enhance the schools' chances to compete for state funds with the more powerful University of Maryland.

"The governing board is close to the institution, it is part of the community and it is responsive to the institution," said Sheldon H. Knorr, the state commissioner of higher education. "The board has adopted a policy of putting authority closer to the institution."

Knorr said the plan would not encourage regionalism or exacerbate the competition among schools for state funds. But some critics were skeptical, and noted that the plan is a step back toward a system the state had discarded.