The University of Maryland at College Park is on the verge of abolishing its "general studies" major, which became a source of embarrassment after basketball star Len Bias' death focused attention on the interdisciplinary program's failings.
The move, which the Board of Regents is due to consider tomorrow, would be a rare instance of a university disbanding a program because administrators and the faculty believe its quality is poor. No other major has been eliminated at College Park solely for that reason in this decade, campus administrators said.
But in the last two years, general studies has been barraged with criticism, including that of a task force on the education of College Park athletes and a Prince George's County grand jury that investigated Bias' June 1986 cocaine-induced death. Bias was a senior majoring in general studies who had not passed a single course the semester before he died.
The grand jury and task force concluded that the major, which has nearly 700 students, has permitted undergraduates to earn a degree by taking a hodge-podge of easy courses. "It was possible for students to have a degree without being experts in any one area," said William A. Kirwan, vice chancellor for academic affairs.
General studies majors are required to pick two major areas of study and one minor area of study.
While some administrators defended the program at first, university President John S. Toll and College Park Chancellor John B. Slaughter now favor abolishing it. The final decision is up to the regents.
"I have no reason to believe they will not support our recommendation," Slaughter said this week.
Their decision would come as College Park, the state's flagship campus, is striving to acquire a national reputation for research and training. That effort was hindered by Bias' widely publicized death and by revelations in the wake of the Bias case that several other members of the basketball team were failing their classes.
Junior Michele Kost, president of the Student Government Assocation, said eliminating the program "would add to the credibility of Maryland as a serious institution."
The program "is viewed by the majority of students as an easy way out," she said.
However, some students and professors think general studies has become an unwarranted victim of the campus' eagerness to overcome its bruised image.
"General studies is getting canned because it is associated with Lenny Bias," said senior Knar Gelenian, whose general studies program focuses on journalism, business and British authors.
"It is certainly being eliminated for what I consider symbolic rather than actual reasons," said Sharon Rubin, who directed the program for three years before becoming a dean last summer at Salisbury State College.
The programs' defenders say that its requirements were tightened a month before Bias died in June 1986 and that, even before, only a fraction of the participants abused it.
"I think there was so much publicity about how awful this major was, nobody bothered to see we've fixed it," said Jennifer Lamb, another senior in the program who is studying visual arts and women in society as her major areas, and whose minor subject is "the written word."
General studies was created in 1972 as an alternative to traditional, disciplinary majors -- such as English or business -- that would enable students to design their own combination of courses. "It really came out of the student desire for relevance we saw during the Vietnam War," Rubin said.
The major, she said, represents one end of the spectrum in a perennial debate in higher education over whether undergraduates should specialize or take diverse courses.
"The major strength is it forces students to take total responsibility for their education," said William Higgins, associate zoology professor.
But Kirwan, the academic affairs vice chancellor, said that such flexibility has become outdated. "There is a retreat back to more structured curriculum and more rigor in the academic program."
Andrew D. Wolvin, president of the campus Senate, which has recommended abolishing the major, said many professors think general studies students do not receive enough faculty advice, since the program has no faculty members of its own. Faculty members were also troubled by a recent campus study that found that students in the program tended to have lower grades than the campus average.
Basketball and football players have chosen the program in unusually large numbers. Between 1979 and 1986, general studies majors accounted for 3 percent of all College Park undergraduates but 29 percent of the players in those two sports, according to officials. College Park administrators emphasized that qualms about the program predated Bias' death. They noted that just two dozen of the nearly 700 general studies majors are on intercollegiate sports teams. "To say this is primarily an athletic thing is not true," said Gerald R. Miller, an acting dean who is responsible for the program.