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Crisis in athletics forces Maryland chancellor to shift his focus

John Brooks Slaughter came to the University of Maryland to upgrade academic standards and research, but a need for reform in athletics has interrupted him. As chancellor of Maryland's largest school of higher education, he is at the center of a drama that has disrupted one of the nation's most successful college sports programs.

The athletic department, in turmoil since the drug-related death last June of basketball star Len Bias, has lost its athletic director, Richard Dull, and the coaches in its two strongest moneymaking sports, Charles (Lefty) Driesell in basketball and, most recently, Robert Ross in football. It spells hard times for Maryland as it seeks to remain a power in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), the nation's strongest college basketball association and a potent force in football.

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Resolution of this crisis rests with Dr. Slaughter. This former science professor and college dean quit as director of the National Science Foundation in 1982 to head the University of Maryland. Now he finds himself entangled in a situation that includes drug abuse, athletes, and academic standards.

``No college student should spend five years on campus and not earn a degree,'' Slaughter says. ``An athlete on this campus can earn his scholastic degree and become a professional success after leaving the sports arena.''

This athletic crisis has forced the chancellor to set aside his blueprint for advancing the university as a learning institution. Instead he has revamped the basketball program by naming a black, Robert Wade, a little-known coach of Dunbar High School in Baltimore, to replace Mr. Driesell, one of the nation's winningest coaches.

Mr. Wade becomes the first black head coach in the ACC, a conference that fielded its first black players in the 1960s. He has begun team practice sessions to prepare his players for an abbreviated season. Slaughter canceled pre-Christmas games and postponed the opener until Dec. 27.

The chancellor has named Charles Sturtz as acting athletic director. He has yet to select a successor to Mr. Ross who announced his resignation on Monday, although he has three years remaining on his contract.

``This is a painful task,'' says Slaughter of the athletic crisis as he talks in his spacious office.

He does not plan to dismantle or deemphasize campus athletics, he says. But he adds: ``The worst thing I can do is to return to business as usual. No, I'm not tuned in to punishing the athletic department or curbing it. There is a need, however, to revitalize it as a university department that functions to educate all its students, including varsity athletes.''

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Life for Slaughter would still be normal had it not been for the incidents of June 19, 1986, the day that Maryland star Len Bias was drafted by the Boston Celtics and was signed up for an estimated $1 million in endorsements of various athletic products. Before his parents could congratulate him; before Slaughter could shake his hand; before the Celtics could welcome him to his first practice, Bias created new headlines when he took a fatal drug overdose.

Slaughter has become an athletic reformer at two levels. At the University of Maryland he will appoint a new athletic director and a new head football coach, and a campus task force will recommend basic changes in the varsity program. At the national level he is chairman of the Council of Presidents, heads of member schools of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

Today his emergency priorities are threefold:

Retool the basketball team. The players, hit by charges of drug use, classroom absenteeism, and poor grades, must be rebuilt.

Reorganize the athletic department. It was virtually destroyed by criticism and allegations that said directors, coaches, and players alike were part of a system that does not follow the rules.

Preside over the NCAA's revised code for eligibility and recruitment of athletes, which went into effect this year.

Slaughter says he will integrate his sports reform with his four-point program for a better University of Maryland:

Build an institution with a strong academic tradition in undergraduate instruction, graduate education and research, and public service. ``To do this,'' he says, ``we need students ready to learn from a faculty accomplished in research and in publishing.''

Create a model multiracial and multicultural institution. ``We are working toward that goal of a cosmopolitan student body,'' he says. ``Of our 38,000 students, 3,000 are black and 2,000 are from foreign countries. We are one of the few campuses that increased the number of black freshmen. They are 12.5 percent of the class of 1990. While most schools see a decline in their minority enrollment, we see an increase every year.''

Improve the quality of life on campus. ``We want a feeling of family here with the staff, the faculty, and the students a vital part of the whole. We hope to cut back on bureaucratic red tape here.''

Make this administration more efficient and more effective. ``Our college community is more like a city of 50,000 people. We can utilize our resources to better serve students, the reason for our being.''

The university is reaping the benefits of this effort, he says. He speaks of developing strong links with industry and with the state.

A recent corporate gift is a five-year $1.5 million Martin Marietta chair in systems engineering to the university's Systems Research Center. The center was established in May 1985 by a $16 million five-year grant from the National Science Foundation.

``A great university can emphasize a quality academic program and yet sponsor a competitive athletic program,'' Slaughter says. ``Put academics and athletics in their proper perspectives, and we can succeed with both.''

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