A rare coalition of Maryland higher education leaders -- including presidents of most public and private universities as well as several community colleges -- warned yesterday that a new round of proposed budget cuts would cripple institutions already struggling to maintain quality and accommodate a growing number of students.
William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, said that higher education has done "more than our part" to aid the state's fiscal crisis, absorbing cuts that amount to nearly one-third of the reductions in the budget proposed by Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and forcing hiring freezes, a midyear tuition increase and furloughs at several campuses.
But with Ehrlich's proposal to boost revenue by legalizing slot machines facing an uncertain future in the General Assembly, state budget analysts are recommending deeper cuts for higher education -- a prospect Kirwan said would leave institutions with no choice but to lay off hundreds of faculty and staff members or increase tuition significantly again. "We are not here to ask for a bigger budget," Frostburg State University President Catherine R. Gira said at the State House, where the higher education leaders gathered. "We are here because the threat of further budget cuts has elevated our concern to alarm."
Still, while supporting Ehrlich's budget as the lesser of two evils, higher education leaders repeatedly declined to take a stand on the slots plan that would fund it. Their stance put them in contrast with public school officials, notably State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who this week endorsed slots as a way to improve schools in low-income areas.
"We in higher education don't see it as our role to identify how the state should collect revenue or balance its budgets," Kirwan said.
Yet higher education will likely get caught up in the standoff between legislative opposition to slots and Ehrlich's resistance to raise taxes. House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D), a slots opponent, said that colleges will probably be spared any more cuts for the current year but that "everything's on the table" for next year's budget.
"If you don't raise revenues, I don't know what position higher education's going to be in," he said.
College leaders offered more details yesterday about the impact of midyear cuts, which for the 13-campus university system totaled $67 million or nearly 8 percent of its budget. The Ehrlich budget for next year would freeze spending at this year's reduced level. Among the impacts cited:
* The popular and highly ranked computer science department at the University of Maryland would have to scale back course offerings, because hiring freezes will prevent it from filling four faculty and 20 teaching assistant vacancies.
* Frostburg State, with several librarian vacancies, would reduce hours at its library. Other staff vacancies could hurt the school's quest to get national accreditation for its business programs.
* The University of Maryland Medical Center has laid off two shock-trauma physicians; additional layoffs would force it to reduce services at the Maryland Poison Center and its free dental clinic.
Leaders of private colleges also spoke out in defense of the $47 million Joseph A. Sellinger grants to private institutions, which state analysts have recommended cutting in half. At Johns Hopkins University, reductions in the state appropriations could cause the delay of laboratory renovations and reductions in financial aid, officials said.
The budget crisis has posed an unusual challenge for Maryland colleges, which, after several years of substantial funding increases through the late 1990s, became one of the ripest targets for cuts when the economy soured. College presidents have lobbied hard in Annapolis this year, trying to remind legislators that their institutions were until recently considered mediocre and to make the case that the recent years of generous funding barely made up for deep recessionary budget cuts of a decade ago.
Still, while the cuts of the early 1990s led to the closing of several academic departments, college officials have been reluctant to spell out in detail the likely consequences of the proposed additional cuts -- analysts are recommending the university system budget be reduced by an additional $38 million next year -- for fear of panicking their students and staff.
Kirwan said such cuts would require the system to lay off 500 to 600 employees or raise tuition 7 percent, on top of a 9 percent increase already approved.
Tony Kinkel, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges, described the forces converging on state higher education as "the perfect storm" -- budget cuts, rising tuition, more adults returning to school, while at the same time the largest graduating class in Maryland history is five years away, a record number of whom will choose to go to college."
University of Maryland President C. Daniel Mote Jr. argued that the state's colleges are an economic engine for Maryland. He decried cuts that would reduce the number of faculty members, each of whom he said bring in an average of $225,000 a year in sponsored research.
"It's analogous to going to the Bay Bridge and letting go of the tollkeepers because you didn't want to pay their salary and benefits," he said. "Then you'd lose the revenue from tolls."