The late spring tranquility at College Park was shattered by a new form of campus unrest this week as University of Maryland faculty members loudly protested a state mandate that they publicly reveal their financial assets and property holdings.
"I think this is a gross invasion of privacy," said Donald Blair, an assistant nuclear engineering professor who has helped organize the growing faculty opposition to the new state ethics law's intrusion into the groves of academe.
Blair's earnings exceed the $19,619 annual salary set by the legislature last year as the minimum for all state paid employees who must file. "I can't buy a nickel's worth of erasers without 25 signatures," said Blair, adding that he could not possibly have a conflict of interest to justify such disclosure.
The across-the-board requirement was written into a massive ethics law passed on the last day of the 1979 legislative session in a sweeping reform effort that some legislators now acknowledge went awry.
The Senate, which inserted the all inclusive salary figure, was seeking an "objective standard" advocated by such reform-minded groups as Common Cause, according to state House Speaker Benajamin L. Cardin.
"Certain issues were compromised just to get an ethics bill passed," he said. "We shouldn't have, but we did. I don't blame them for being angry. I think it's wrong."
State officials charged with enforcing the law say the statute is unambiguous in its language and dramatic in its impact, expanding the number who must file from a mere 500 under previous rules to about 10,000.
The educators comprise the largest single group, according to state ethics commission counsel Nancy Speck. Thus, after some administrative delay, the University of Maryland contingent received its forms this week.
Even several hundred graduate teaching assistants were included in the mass mailing of forms that went to the campus this week. State officials said yesterday that it was an error to include this group.
About 175 academies have enlisted as plaintiffs in a suit to be filed in federal court next week, Blair said. A committee has raised more than $4,000 to fight the legal battle, he said.
The state system encompasses six campuses of the University of Maryland, the four-campus state college network, Towson and Morgan State universities, the University of Baltimore, St. Mary's College and 17 community colleges.
The year-old law requires all public employes earning the annual minimum -- whether or not they have any policy-making or contracting role -- to disclos their financial interests and assets, including real estate, stocks and gifts exceeding $25 from companies doing business with the state.
The penalty for failing to file can include a fine of up to $1,000 for each day the violation continues, once the person has been ordered to comply. An employe can also be fired, lose pay or otherwise be disciplined until he has fully complied.
Speck and the law covers part-time professors who may work only two days a week but whose salaries, if projected on an annual basis, meet the minimum figure.
"They would be carrying the same kind of responsibility regardless of whether they work two or five days a week," she said.
Anticipating the forms that arrived this week, the six-member University of Maryland professors' committee invited fellow faculty last month to contribute $10 each to the legal battle. The group has retained the Baltimore law firm of Frank, Bernstein, Conaway and Goldman, which successfully sought a temporary restraining order in April on behalf of 11 Towson State faculty members who opposed the public disclosure of their finances.
Responding to a second effort by the group, 111 College Park faculty members and 65 from Baltimore-area campuses agreed to act as plaintiffs in any further legal action.
"There have been a lot of meetings, a lot of smoke and a lot of hot air," Blair said. "It really is terrible. It looks like politics as usual took place."
Ethics commission chairman Herbert J. Belgrad said he believes after discussing the matter with Speaker Cardin that the legislators had "full awareness of the fact (the law) would cover a number of classifications such as professors." But Cardin said nobody really gave it much thought. "Who was to file was thought to be a recodification" of existing law, Cardin said. "It was important, but not an area that got most of the attention."
Cardin said he now believes "the majority of legislators feel you shouldn't have to file just because you have a certain amount of income. I think we need to change the law."
Cardin said a panel of legislators comprising the out-of-session legislative policy committee met recently in Annapolis. "We requested the appropriate committees to look at the issue and give us a reccommendation," he said.
"Let me put it this way," said Assistant professor Blair. "When I shut the bathroom door, it's not because I have anything to hide but because I enjoy my privacy. Human beings have a right to some privacy, period."