Debate intensifies over proposed UMB-College Park merger

With the board that oversees Maryland's university system just two months from deciding whether to back a merger of its largest research campuses, Baltimore civic leaders are lining up against any move that would place the city's campus under out-of-town control.

The idea of merging the University of Maryland, Baltimore with the state's flagship campus in College Park initially was floated by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who says the combined university would become one of the most prestigious in the nation. At Miller's behest, the General Assembly passed legislation this spring requiring the Board of Regents to study the issue and submit a report in December. The regents will hold the first in a series of public hearings on the issue Friday afternoon at UMB and next Friday in College Park.

Critics say Miller, who represents Prince George's County, is trying to boost the renown of College Park at the expense of the Baltimore institution. They say the merger's impact would be the equivalent of Baltimore losing a corporate headquarters that employs thousands and generates more than $400 million a year in research spending.

"Clearly, the motivation for Senator Miller was to enhance College Park," said Abell Foundation President Robert C. Embry Jr. "It's a legitimate objective, but it's not my objective. My objective is to enhance Baltimore City. And from the city's perspective, if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Even if a combined flagship university attained a higher ranking against universities nationally, Embry said, there's no evidence that it would attract better students and faculty or generate more money.

The Greater Baltimore Committee, a group of leading civic and business leaders, also opposes the idea.

"You don't see a merger of two co-equals," said GBC President Donald C. Fry. "You normally see it where one party is bigger than the other and stronger than the other and absorbs it. That would be pretty detrimental to UMB."

Miller dismisses talk that he wants to raid a Baltimore institution. "All I'm asking people to do is help us do better and put the University of Maryland on a competitive level with its peer group," he said. "That doesn't mean taking a single asset out of Baltimore. That doesn't mean taking a single job out of Baltimore. We would keep the same buildings in place, the same faculty in place, but in terms of stature, we would be a top-10 research university. That's progress."

Miller says most of the highest-ranked public universities in the nation — the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Virginia, the University of Michigan — combine undergraduate and doctoral offerings with highly regarded schools of law and medicine. But in Maryland, the pre-professional schools have their own campus in Baltimore.

The Senate president questions whether a flagship university can reach its full potential without combining those components.

Despite Miller's advocacy, Baltimore-area legislators also have questioned the need for a merger.

"To make a change of this sort when we have two institutions that are very highly regarded, the burden of proof is on those who would make the change," said Del. Sandy Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat.

UMB has forged strong ties to the community in West Baltimore, civic leaders say, and that commitment could wane if its schools were controlled by a president in College Park.

"I've been very pleased with what UMB has done for the community," said Del. Adrienne Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat and the House of Delegate's speaker pro tem. "From the free dental clinics to pro-bono legal advice, I would hate to lose sight of that impact in all of this."

Several university leaders across the state said they have been careful not to speak against the merger publicly for fear of crossing Miller. But university presidents have raised concerns with legislators and with the regents.

They argue that a merged flagship university would hold so much political sway and eat up so much of the system's budget that other universities would struggle to grow or gain any recognition.

"Those are certainly concerns that have been expressed," said William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the state university system. "There would have to be safeguards built in to address that issue. The other institutions have their advocates in the General Assembly, so they would not stand unprotected. But it's a very legitimate concern."

Miller said he understands the concerns of other presidents. "They're afraid of what this might become," he said of a merged flagship. "But the reality is that nobody wants to take anything away from anybody."

The presidents at the smaller institutions in the university system also have noted that the merger itself would be costly at a time when universities are furloughing employees and scraping for construction dollars. Students and workers would have to shuttle back and forth between the two campuses. Technology would have to be integrated. Combined labs would be proposed.

"I think everybody who has looked at it agrees that there would have to be a significant financial investment to realize the potential of the merger," Kirwan said.

For all of those worries, the chancellor said, some university workers are excited about combining College Park's vast graduate and undergraduate offerings with Baltimore's highly regarded graduate schools of law, medicine and other health-related disciplines.

"There's a feeling that a combined university could rise to a level in American higher education that would be difficult for either to reach on its own," Kirwan said. "There is so much interface between their areas of strength in research that you might create the potential for some very significant interdisciplinary or cross-disciplinary research. Of course it may be possible to create those synergies without a full-on merger."

The presidents of both universities, Wallace Loh in College Park and Jay Perman in Baltimore, have remained publicly neutral about a merger. But both have expressed excitement over the potential for greater collaboration, even if the institutions remain separate.

Critics of Miller's proposal say there's nothing stopping the universities from developing joint programs now.

"In talking to the president of College Park, he cites a lack of joint faculty appointments," Embry said. "But is there anything inhibiting that that a merger would make possible? No. There's nothing stopping greater cooperation if there's a specific interaction that would be beneficial."

Kirwan and the regents have been careful not to betray any hint of what their December report might say. Even if a merger is recommended, for example, it's not clear who would be in charge or where that leader would be based. The chancellor said he has tried to avoid forming an opinion until all the public input is gathered.

Gov. Martin O'Malley also has stayed out of the fray. "The governor looks forward to reviewing the Board of Regents' recommendations and hopes we can realize some opportunities to achieve more synergies between the institutions," a spokeswoman said Thursday.

Miller could conceivably push for a merger during next year's legislative session, even if the regents recommend against it. Asked Thursday if he would do so, the Senate president did not answer directly but said he would not back off of his quest to help the university system realize its potential.

But Kirwan said the regents should be allowed the decisive word.

"It would be a shame if politics overcame in any way the considered judgment of the citizens who were appointed to provide policy guidance," the chancellor said.

Several legislators agreed.

"If we did not have the support of the regents, that would be a major factor against it," Jones said of a proposed merger.

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