Addressing senators for the first time since tuition went up in the summer, Kirwan said colleges had tried to absorb a 14 percent funding cut without passing it on to students. The 20 percent tuition increase this school year - $1,000 for many families - made up 37 percent of the system's shortfall, he said.
"We're very appreciative of the decision to hold us level-funded. However, we have increased costs we can't avoid," he said.
The reception he and other system officials received from the Budget and Taxation Committee was cooler than in recent years, when lawmakers tended to praise the system for its rise in reputation. Yesterday, members of both parties focused on their concerns about skyrocketing costs, even as they acknowledged that the increases were prompted by state cuts.
Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Howard County Democrat, asked whether university officials had plans to address the system's status as the sixth-most expensive in the country.
Sen. Ulysses Currie, the chairman and a Prince George's Democrat, asked whether it was appropriate for the system's regents, an appointed board, to have approved a 20 percent tuition increase that was akin to a tax increase for many families.
And Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus of Somerset, the Republican leader, asked why the system hadn't reduced the pay of top administrators in its effort to cut costs.
"The public out there doesn't feel the system is efficient. The bottom line is, you can do better," Stoltzfus said. "There's little sympathy out there, and a lot of that has to do with the salary structure" for top officials.
Regents Chairman Clifford M. Kendall replied that salaries - $200,000 and higher for many vice presidents and vice chancellors - are not out of line with other states'.
Kendall said that the system is looking for ways to save money but that the measures could take time. Steps will include consolidating some administrative functions among campuses and making better use of facilities. "We have found that not all classrooms are being used all day," he said.
"We want to reduce our cost structure," Kendall said. "We think there are probably better ways to do things."
Sen. Patrick J. Hogan defended the system, noting that it is attracting more private fund raising and research grants to make up for stagnant state support. "They're doing exactly what we asked them to do," said Hogan, a Montgomery Democrat. "I think these challenging times are making the system more efficient."