Commentary: Big Ten move may be good deal, but secret process was bad

Big Ten conference logoLast week, the Board of Public Works approved a $5 million contract for telephone services at the University of Maryland and the $1.8 million sale of the Towson University TV station the university has been trying to unload for years.

The board made up of the governor, the comptroller and the state treasurer also awarded a $19,000 contract for HVAC system at the Bio-Psychology building in College Park, a $46,000 contract to design an elevator and disability-compliant bathrooms at Towson, and a $169,000 mass spectrometer for drug evaluations at the School of Pharmacy.

From multimillion-dollar building renovations to dorms, catering services and scientific equipment, every month the University System of Maryland comes asking to have contracts large and small approved by top elected officials after a public procurement process that usually involves requests for proposals (RFPs) and multiple bids – an often long and cumbersome process.

There are perhaps aspects of the move of the University of Maryland College Park athletics programs from the Atlantic Coast Conference to the Big Ten that will eventually get this kind of open, public and official scrutiny. But as it stands now, this deal involving tens of millions of dollars – none of it taxpayer funds, we’re told – was conceived, negotiated and executed hastily and in secret until its swift approval by an unelected Board of Regents on Monday.

Some fans and alumni are outraged – two-thirds of people in one of those unscientific reader polls by The Washington Post – but many commentators say it’s a good financial deal for the university. College athletics after all have long been about money, marketing and entertainment, and very little about education.

But no matter how the dollars are segregated, it all takes place on a public campus of a public university, and there was nothing public, open or transparent about the process that approved this move that affects thousands of state employees and students.

It is just another example of how unaccountable public universities have become with their highly compensated presidents, coaches, administrators and staff. Each year, looks at state employees making over $100,000 a year. Last year, there were 5,522 people the state paid six-figure salaries; three-quarters of them are in the university system.

–Len Lazarick