UM merger could marginalize HBCUs

What does proposed UMCP-UMB mean for Baltimore and other state schools? A lot of unknowns.

The robust discussion on whether to merge the University of Maryland, College Park and University of Maryland, Baltimore is of great consequence. During our terms on the University System of Maryland Board of Regents (2010-2011) and the vice chair of the University System of Maryland Student Council (2013-2014), the Maryland legislature and others have created work groups to examine the feasibility of a potential merger ("Moving UM and UMB closer," Feb. 27).

There is no denying that the opportunity for merger between both institutions poses definite advantages. Collectively, the institutions would command a budget of over $2 billion and close to 40,000 students. Almost overnight, the University of Maryland would become one of the top 10 research universities in the entire nation.

However, this would come at great risk and detriment to the other college and universities in Maryland, especially, the four historically black colleges (Bowie State University, Coppin State University, Morgan State University and University of Maryland Eastern Shore). Currently, engaged in a lawsuit against the state, we have been victims of systematic and chronic under-funding for decades. This deliberate disenfranchisement and discrimination coupled with HBCUs' mission of admitting, training and serving a population of students that are often admitted performing on remedial levels is a deadly cocktail.

Most performance-based funding that includes metrics like graduation rate cannot or do not take into account the various difficulties and complexities of higher education in the context of first generational students, impoverished families and many other factors that our students face. This causes a dependency on state-based funding that this proposed merger would almost certainly chip away. Moreover, the implications the merger would have on the surrounding neighborhoods of Baltimore have yet to be determined. There is a fine line between community empowerment and community gentrification which the University of Maryland Baltimore has always tightly toed.

Creating a powerhouse institution will no doubt put an unintended strain on how other institutions such as Towson University, UMBC and the University of Baltimore will have to creatively and strategically shift priorities and plan for a merger of this size. Along with the other neighboring institutions, the two Baltimore-based HBCUs will need to worry about program duplication, state funding, fundraising and other regular tasks that come with running a university.

If the case for the merger was simply about making sure students were served and the effective allocation of state funds, then the MPower initiative has successfully accomplished this goal. Many of the benefits of a merger can be accomplished through a variety of administrative actions taken by the USM Board of Regents and chancellor. There are even ways to practice the USM Board of Regents' commitment to "effectiveness and efficiency" without having to merge both institutions into one mega university. However, it is our belief that the merger has a much more dubious goal — the monopoly of higher education in the state of Maryland.

There is no doubt that many of the leaders who have publicly supported this merger haven't fully appreciated the full gravity of what it can do for the broader higher education community in the state. There are certainly clear wins for both the city of Baltimore and state of Maryland at large, but this merger has the potential to seal the fate of the HBCUs, which are already struggling to afford the basics.

There should be an additional feasibility study completed that underscores the impact on other USM institutions, especially the four HBCUs, before any deal or agreement is reached. Many of the outcomes that the state is looking to accomplish can be done through executive and administrative actions of USM Board of Regents and chancellor. Additional thought and diligence must be given to this merger.

Leslie Hall and Richard Lucas

The writers are, respectively, a former USM student regent and Bowie State University student government president.

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