After years of frosty relations, Maryland's largest public research campuses finally have a formal plan to blend their scholarly strengths and to create chances for students and professors to work in both locations.
The campuses in Baltimore and College Park will share a school of public health, collaborate on new programs in Montgomery County and make joint efforts to convert research to business as part of an alliance approved Thursday by the state university system's governing board.
University and elected leaders hailed the new partnership as a potential boon to job creation in the state, saying it will put Maryland students and researchers on the cutting edge of combining science, technology and medicine.
"This is going to put our state in a much better competitive position to create new jobs in the new economy," said Gov. Martin O'Malley.
William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the state university system, said the plan would "unleash a collaboration between two academic powerhouses that will have a profound effect on the state and nation."
The alliance is the child of last year's study of a proposed merger between the universities.
The plan appears to address calls from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller for a combined research center operated by both schools and for collaboration at the Shady Grove campus in Montgomery County. The merger study last year was Miller's idea, and the Senate president said in a January interview that he expected the campuses to establish tangible partnerships.
After Thursday's vote, Miller said he was satisfied with the result, though he indicated that he wants the universities to go further in establishing new collaborations.
"It's a great first step; it's a grand first step," Miller said. "I'm totally pleased."
He couldn't resist a dig at the term "alliance," which the system has used to describe the new partnership. "Alliances can be broken," the Senate president said. "This is not going to be broken."
The Board of Regents rejected the concept of a full merger in December, saying the difficulties of combining two complex operations would outweigh the benefits of combined research.
They instead called for targeted alliances that would take advantage of College Park's strengths in the sciences and engineering and Baltimore's strengths in medicine and law. The regents asked the presidents of each campus and Kirwan to deliver a specific plan by March.
The board approved the plan with no debate and only one dissenting vote. The effort will be known as University of Maryland: MPowering the State and is projected to cost $44 million over the next decade.
Regent Gary Attman said the plan "exceeded our expectations."
"It's a modest investment that could create tremendous opportunities," he said.
Though the merger debate revived longtime tensions between Baltimore and the Washington suburbs, both campus presidents said they were eager for a closer relationship between the campuses.
"Whether it's called a merger or an alliance, who cares?" said College Park President Wallace D. Loh. "Let's get it done."
His Baltimore counterpart, Jay Perman, said students and faculty seem excited about the new programs on the horizon. "It has been so easy to get this going," he said. "I think people think this is the right thing to do."
In addition to merging the existing public health programs and establishing the joint program at Shady Grove, the alliance will clear the way for professors and students to work at both campuses.
Law students from Baltimore, for example, will participate in a clinic on intellectual property law at the school of engineering in College Park. Undergraduates who complete their first two years at College Park will now have a seamless path to spend their junior and senior years at the school of nursing in Baltimore. The system will offer scholarships allowing College Park undergraduates to work with top researchers in Baltimore and graduate students from Baltimore to work in College Park science labs.
The universities will also operate a joint center of bioinformatics, a discipline that blends computer science with medicine and biology.
Though the universities will offer a combined master's program in public health, the existing programs will retain their physical presences in College Park and Baltimore. Kirwan said students wouldn't be forced to commute between the campuses, though he said "to get the full benefit of the school, they would probably want to take classes in both places."
He predicted that the addition of Baltimore's epidemiology program to the broader public health offerings in College Park would likely vault the combined school in national rankings.
The combined school will have to receive accreditation before offering degrees. Kirwan said he expects that process to move quickly.
The most obvious manifestation of the partnership will occur in Montgomery County, where Kirwan said the system needs to make a greater impact.
"There's such a technology base there," the chancellor said. "They are hungry for real, live university researchers."
The system will appoint a new dean to oversee the collaborations at Shady Grove, which will include undergraduate and graduate programs in everything from law to business to biosciences.
Some students could end up taking the bulk of their classes at the Shady Grove campus, Kirwan said, and the first wave of new programs could be available as soon as fall 2013.
System leaders hope the initiative in Montgomery County will be a key piece in overall efforts to capitalize financially on the ideas of top scientists, engineers and doctors.
O'Malley said the university system does an outstanding job of producing research but a less outstanding job of converting that research to business and jobs.
"That can only come about by strengthening the connections we have," the governor said. "This partnership will allow us to realize what other states have realized."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun