The University System of Maryland Board of Regents identified two very good reasons not to move forward right now with a merger of Maryland's flagship campus in College Park with its professional schools in Baltimore. The first is that doing a merger right would cost something on the order of a quarter billion dollars — money necessary to integrate data systems, create new research programs and build new facilities. Given the fiscal strain the state is under, that's not a realistic possibility right now.
The second good reason is that, as Chancellor William E. "Britt" Kirwan pointed out, mergers do not work well when one side is opposed to it, and that appears inescapably to be the case with the Baltimore schools and virtually all civic leaders in the city. It has been an unfortunate fact that ever since Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller proposed the merger in the spring, the idea has been greeted as an attempt at a hostile takeover of a Baltimore institution by one in the Washington suburbs.
Too little attention has been paid to the potential benefits of a merger in terms of academic advancement and economic development and too much has been devoted to the self-deprecating and parochial notion by city leaders that College Park would inevitably have the upper hand in any merger and would use it to bleed the Baltimore campus dry. The mayor actually compared the idea to Baltimore losing a major corporate headquarters. It was a depressing display of how local politics can get in the way of a discussion of the greater good.
Instead of an outright merger, the regents are proposing a "strategic alliance" between the two campuses, and they jump-started the process by approving the creation of a joint center for medical innovation and a provision allowing for students to apply for admittance to combined undergraduate-professional degree programs. They also asked the presidents of the College Park and Baltimore institutions to come up with a plan to create joint academic programs, attract more research funding, increase the commercialization of discoveries made on campus, ease the process for joint appointments for faculty, and improve the schools' ability to attract top academic talent.
Those goals are important because they are tied directly to the University System's strategic plan and because they better position the state to prosper in the 21st century. Maryland already has a highly educated population, but further leveraging that asset could be the key to our competitiveness in a global economy. We already have excellent medical and basic sciences research facilities, but combining their efforts and facilitating the transfer of their work into new businesses would give Maryland a chance to be the Silicon Valley of biomedical engineering.
Perhaps the strongest argument of the anti-merger crowd is that there was nothing stopping the two institutions from pursuing those goals while maintaining separate identities and governing structures. But the fact of the matter is, without a single leader looking out for the best interests of both campuses, their work has not been as coordinated as it needs to be. A merger would have definitively solved that problem, but "strategic alliance" could wind up being no more than the title of a report that gets filed with the legislature and collects dust on a shelf.
The regents have given College Park President Wallace Loh and University of Maryland-Baltimore President Jay Perman until March 1 to come up with a detailed plan for implementing a strategic alliance. The regents and the legislature should demand that the plan include objective measures for evaluating the level of cooperation — goals for the number of joint faculty appointments, creation of combined degree programs, cross-disciplinary research teams, and so on. And the governor and legislature should be realistic about the fact that even if a strategic alliance wouldn't be as expensive as a true merger, its success will also require additional funding.
Chancellor Kirwan is pitching the strategic alliance idea as providing all the benefits of the merger and few of the risks. That sounds almost too good to be true, and indeed no less an authority than former College Park President C.D. "Dan" Mote said the two campuses' history of missed opportunities is bound to continue without a real merger. We hope that will not be the case, but it's now up to the system to prove that an alliance is more than just a politically expedient way to get Senator Miller to back down.