After immersing himself for months in a Byzantine debate over how to improve Maryland's colleges, Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg emerged last Wednesday to announce that a decision, at last, was at hand.

Steinberg telephoned college presidents to break the news, divulged it Friday morning at a gathering of business leaders, and told aides to get to work translating the long-awaited plan into legislation.

But as the week drew to a close, it became clear the Schaefer administration's college-reform plan faces a hitch: Gov. William Donald Schaefer isn't so sure he likes the idea. At least not Steinberg's version.

The governor's skepticism created an unusually public sense of disarray that left legislators mystified and added a new element of uncertainty to the college improvements that are the centerpiece of Schaefer's legislative agenda.

"I have never been involved in such a complex, emotional issue," Del. Nancy Kopp (D-Montgomery), one of the legislature's experts on higher education, said last week.

Friday afternoon, Schaefer and Steinberg, who the governor entrusted last spring to design a college-reform plan, huddled for an hour, trying to work out their differences. Afterward, aides said it remained unclear whether the "administration plan" Steinberg has been circulating will, in fact, be the administration's plan.

"I think the conclusion of the day is, there is no conclusion," one Annapolis source said.

"I wouldn't think this is, by any stretch of the imagination, the final salvo," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Charles J. (Buzz) Ryan (D-Prince George's), one of a handful of legislators who have worked with Steinberg throughout the fall to design a college plan. "There'll probably be a couple more changes this week."

The problem, at least for now, is that the strategy unveiled by Steinberg is almost diametrically opposed to the refrain the governor has recited since last spring.

If Maryland's colleges are to join the nation's best, Schaefer has said repeatedly, they need more money from the state. But he won't give them any, he has always said in the next breath, unless the legislature comes up with a more effective way to govern the schools -- preferably by putting all 13 public colleges under a single, powerful board of regents.

Those colleges are now governed by four separate boards, an arrangement critics say has permitted a wasteful duplication of academic programs at neighboring campuses.

Steinberg's plan would accomplish Schaefer's goal of giving the schools more money -- an unprecedented $50 million added to the higher education budget, which is about $615 million.

But -- and here's the catch -- the lieutenant governor abandoned the idea of consolidating all the four-year colleges under one board. Instead, he decided to give more power to a newly reconstituted board that would coordinate all facets of higher education: community colleges, private schools and for-profit trade schools, along with the public colleges.

But the prospect of a consolidated board governing all Maryland public colleges proved so controversial, Steinberg said, it would never get through the legislature. Various interests feared the consolidation would diminish their funding, political influence, and their ability to expand. Opponents included community colleges, private colleges, black legislators and administrators at the University of Maryland, College Park.

As Steinberg and a small group of key legislators debated the change, he said, "We were just getting into a deeper pot, creating more problems, instead of solving them."

After four months of work, the group disbanded on Tuesday, far short of consensus.

The next day, when Steinberg unveiled his plan, it played to a deeply divided audience.

"I'm personally delighted . . . that we've come to this point," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings (D-Baltimore), one of the legislators who worked with Steinberg. "I'm behind the lieutenant governor 100 percent."

But others took a different view. "I think they've decided not to reform Maryland colleges," Ryan said.

"This is sort of fiddling at the margins," another source said. "It is almost no change at all."

And Friday, Schaefer was sticking to his guns: "There won't be {additional} money," he said adamantly, "unless there is a revision of the governance."Staff writer Robert Barnes contributed to this report.