For some of Maryland’s institutions of higher education, the year was one of turmoil and seismic change. The top stories for the state’s colleges and universities were sometimes reflective of developments in the classroom, but they also were the results of human tragedy, bureaucratic ineptitude and efforts to come to grips with cultural, lifestyle and economic trends extending far beyond academics.
- Upheaval in College Park.
The flagship University of Maryland campus began the year still dealing with the fallout from the 2017 fatal stabbing of a black student by a suspect linked to white supremacists, as well as other racially divisive incidents.
Then, on May 29, 19-year-old Jordan McNair, an offensive lineman on the school’s football team, collapsed at practice after suffering heat stroke during drills. He died at a hospital two weeks later. A subsequent investigation found the university’s trainers failed to follow proper procedures to care for McNair. A broader probe of the culture of the football program found a variety of leadership shortcomings and other troubling problems.
When members of the University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents announced their support for coach DJ Durkin after the investigations were complete, an uproar among students, faculty, donors and politicians forced the chair of the board to resign. School President Wallace Loh, who had announced his plans to retire next year, fired Durkin.
As the campus was still reeling from that episode, a first-year student from Howard County died from complications she suffered after becoming ill from adenovirus. Her family blamed mold at her campus dorm, a linkage downplayed by school health officials. More than three dozen students also came down with the virus, and school officials announced they would remediate at least two dorms.
- The big bucks.
Schools of all sizes have been reliant for years on the generosity of well-heeled donors to help bankroll new facilities, endow academic chairs, recruit star faculty and provide academic assistance to needy students. It’s fair to say the trend went into hyperdrive in 2018.
At Johns Hopkins University, billionaire businessman and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave his alma mater a $1.8 billion gift for student financial aid, the largest-ever contribution to an American university. (At College Park, officials were still working out the details of the school’s largest-ever gift, more than $219 million, from the A. James and Alice B. Clark Foundation that had been announced the previous fall.)
It wasn’t just major institutions that reaped the benefits of such largesse. Hood College established the George B. Delaplaine Jr. School of Business after the Frederick businessman contributed an undisclosed gift to endow the new school.
Morgan State University completed its Sesquicentennial Anniversary Campaign by topping its $250 million goal with $254,307,730, the largest funding effort of its kind in the university’s history.
- Making school more affordable
The gubernatorial campaign focused attention on initiatives to help students and their families manage the soaring costs of a higher education. But educators were also looking for ways to ease those costs.
St. John’s College, the private liberal arts school with campuses in Annapolis and New Mexico, came out with a mea culpa of sorts. The school said in September that it would lop a whopping $17,000 off its annual tuition, acknowledging it had jacked up rates for years to position the school as a prestigious choice in the competitive higher education marketplace.
Baltimore County officials said they would explore ways to provide aid to needy, qualified students for tuition and mandatory fees at Community College of Baltimore County. And, of course, the Bloomberg gift to Johns Hopkins is designed to pay the expenses of qualified students who can’t afford one of the nation’s priciest educations.
- What’s a history major to do?
The state’s decade-long push to bolster programs in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math – STEM, in the academic parlance – seems to be paying off. USM officials announced in June that since 2015, Maryland schools had conferred 10,000 bachelor degrees in cybersecurity or related programs, the hottest field in the STEM family.
Humanities, meanwhile, weren’t getting a lot of love.
A glance at the USM data journal further reflects this trend. In 2005, 895 degrees were bestowed in the fine and applied arts and 805 in letters across schools in the system. Last year, those numbers were essentially unchanged. But degrees granted in computer and information science swelled from 2,645 to 5,117 during that period, and those receiving an engineering degree saw their ranks grow from 1,224 in 2005 to 2,016 last year.
At Goucher College, outgoing President Jose Antonio Bowen, who had earned a reputation for embracing fresh approaches at the school, said it was time to stop propping up programs that weren’t attracting students. While he stressed the school was doubling down on its commitment to the humanities, he also announced it was cutting Russian studies, studio art, theater, religion, elementary education and special education majors while shifting resources to degree programs in greater demand.
Such a move, he said, would help Goucher maintain its tuition freeze.
- Economic engines still purring
As the most significant higher education trend of 2017, The Daily Record a year ago reported on how Maryland universities were investing heavily to support startup communities and to host incubators, part of a broader economic development strategy.
That has not let up. If anything, smaller and midsize school are seeking ways to join the action.
Towson University was euphoric after qualifying for eligibility in the state’s Regional Institution Strategic Enterprise Zone, or RISE, program. Such a designation allows new and existing enterprises in the area could receive property and income tax credits. The university estimated that the designation, combined with activity at its incubator, could have an annual $1.8 billion economic impact on the area.
The state also approved RISE designations for Morgan State University, Salisbury University and Montgomery College’s Germantown campus.
- Best of times, worst of …
The University of Maryland, Baltimore County has become used to being nationally ranked for innovation and value, and that continued in 2018. And the UMBC men’s basketball team’s upset of No. 1 ranking Virginia in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament unleashed a virtual tidal wave of favorable publicity for the school.
But as schools across the nation grappled with how to handle complaints of sexual misconduct on campus – a debate further fueled by the Trump administration’s proposed revision of federal policies – UMBC was named as a defendant in a class-action lawsuit from several women who accused prosecutors, detectives and university officials of covering up sexual assault complaints.
A school spokesperson said UMBC could not discuss the case. The Maryland Office of the Attorney General moved to have the university and its police chief removed from the complaint. UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski III told The Sun that while he thought the school had responded in a legally appropriate way, it needed to do much more in the way of personal outreach.