Montgomery County lobbyist Blair Lee complained last month {Close to Home, Sept. 13} that the "College Park campus is under siege by some ambitious Baltimoreans who think the university belongs in Baltimore, not Prince George's County."

"But D.C. area leaders," Lee warned, "smell a rat."

The "rat" turned out to be the threat of competition from Baltimore, specifically in the form of a major public research university to anchor the region's economic future.

The current cries of alarm from the Washington suburbs and College Park echo the nation's classic earlier debate in California, when civic leaders in the Los Angeles area demanded the establishment of UCLA. This prompted howls of protest from the San Francisco Bay area, where the University of California at Berkeley demanded protection of its "flagship" monopoly.

To modern Marylanders, especially in metropolitan Baltimore, the debate over UCLA sounds strikingly familiar. When a University of California regent from Los Angeles proposed that a UC campus be established there after World War I, the education dean at Berkeley called it "foolish for the state to undertake an unnecessary duplication of university work in Los Angeles." When in 1923 the new, two-year UCLA asked to add a third undergraduate year to its curriculum, the UC president denounced it as "an academic rival" of the Berkeley campus, "laying siege to the State Treasury for the limited funds which are available for higher education." In 1932, when UCLA asked to begin graduate work, the graduate dean at Berkeley vowed that "they will never, never, never offer graduate work on the Los Angeles campus."

UCLA overcame these obstacles and grew to greatness, nourishing in the process the new aerospace industry that provided the region's chief industrial base. It paved the way for the modern model of flagship university systems.

Can and should Baltimore build its UCLA -- its University of Maryland, Baltimore -- to similarly enrich its community culture and drive its threatened economy toward the information-based enterprise of the future?

In a recent remark that reflected the resentment of the College Park constituency, state senator Howard A. Denis of Montgomery County emphasized the high stakes of the economic competition. "College Park is better because of its proximity to Washington, because it helps us recruit faculty members to teach," Denis said, "and businesses to locate near the campus."

To economically imperiled Baltimore, Sen. Denis hit the mark squarely: the scientific and information-based businesses of the future will indeed concentrate in the Washington suburbs -- unless metropolitan Baltimore can build a major public research university to attract its share. Such a UMB would combine with Johns Hopkins and College Park to create a Baltimore-Washington research axis that could rival the Research Triangle in North Carolina.

Instead of challenging the Research Triangle, however, the historic tradition of Washington and Baltimore is to rival each other. College Park argues forcefully that despite Maryland's bimodal demographics, with 2.1 million Marylanders clustering around Baltimore and 1.6 million around Washington, the state is geographically too small to need two major public research universities. Despite the state's wealth, it badly underfunds its largest and most comprehensive campus at College Park. A depressing, zero-sum game of state funding is assumed, with Baltimore's gain seen as a net loss to Washington.

Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg has recently proposed to merge the medical and professional campus at the University of Maryland at Baltimore, the arts & sciences campus at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, and the University of Baltimore. This would create a single "Research I"-class university, which would join Johns Hopkins and College Park in that elite category in Maryland.

Gov. Schaefer is encouraging a plan for consolidation sponsored by UM President John Toll, which would dismantle the University of Maryland as we have known it and bring in Maryland's eight state colleges under a "superboard" to crowd the common (and shallow) trough. Will the Washington and Baltimore constituencies of the University of Maryland continue their pattern of feuding in an assumed zero-sum game? Or will the UM campuses join in a common drive to increase funding, from 10.5 to 12 percent of state expenditures, which could provide both of Maryland's metropolises with top-notch public research universities?

In light of the rather grim recent studies of Baltimore's economic future and the growing metropolitan sentiment for a UMB, it would seem strategically profitable for College Park leaders to bargain positively with their Baltimore counterparts and with UM system administrators. Their goal would be the increased operating and capital funding (and decreased lower-division student enrollments) that UMCP needs and deserves. In return they would support a UMB that would not be funded out of College Park's hide -- much as UCLA is not funded out of Berkeley's hide.

Given College Park's unique location in America, and given such funding, in time it could even grow into a better university than Berkeley. A UMB, even if it matured into a UCLA, could never seriously challenge the uniqueness of College Park. Even the Berkeley faculty is proud to share its UC bond with UCLA -- while still boasting about its higher international rankings.

To date, however, we have not seen such vision from the UM leadership. Without it our common UM prospects on both ends of the Washington-Baltimore corridor, on the eve of a possible statewide homogenization, would appear to be mutually grim. -- Hugh Davis Graham is professor history at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.