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The non-merger

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Some of the hottest fields for research (and those with some of the greatest potential to drive Maryland's 21st century economy) are in the intersection between engineering and medicine. The University of Maryland's engineering program, which is on the College Park campus, is ranked in the top 10 of U.S. public universities. The University of Maryland Medical School is ranked in the top 10 for research among public schools. So how many joint faculty appointments are there between the system's campuses in College Park and Baltimore?

One, a professor with a half-time appointment in pharmacy in Baltimore and a half-time appointment in engineering in College Park. And the two schools were so ill equipped to handle such a thing that he had a hard time getting a mortgage; so far as the banks could tell, he didn't have a full-time job.

A strong undercurrent to the opposition to a proposed merger of the two campuses was the belief among Baltimore City leaders that the idea was nothing but a power grab by College Park boosters (chiefly, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller). Strong opposition from Baltimore helped scuttle the merger, which the University System of Maryland Board of Regents rejected in December. But stories like that one demonstrate just how poorly the system is taking advantage of the potential of combining the two institutions' strengths.

Today, the presidents of the two campuses, Wallace Loh of College Park and Jay Perman of Baltimore, announced a strategic alliance that accomplishes much of the same things a merger would have but without the baggage. Some of the effects will be big and some will be subtle. The two campuses will merge their schools of public health, establish a new research center in bioinformatics and establish a major presence under a joint academic dean at the university system's Shady Grove campus in Montgomery County. They will eliminate the human resources and reporting hurdles that have contributed to the lack of joint appointments, create scholarships to allow students on one campus to take courses or work in labs on the other, and clear up other quirks caused by the schools' separation.

(Case in point: About 35 students transfer from College Park to Baltimore after their sophomore year to get a degree in nursing, and although they graduate two years later with bachelor's degrees, they count against the College Park graduation rate. It amounts to about a 1 percentage point drop, Mr. Loh says.)

The success of this venture is imperative because it ties into some of Maryland's most crucial goals for education and economic development. In late 2010, the university system adopted a goal of increasing the percentage of Marylanders with two- or four-year degrees from 44 percent (already one of the highest rates in the nation) to 55 percent by the end of the decade, and to increase the proportion of science, math, engineering and technology graduates. This strategic alliance between the state's top two public research universities helps expand programs where the demand is highest.

Furthermore, it ties directly into the state's greatest potential economic advantages. The combination of the two schools' strength in engineering, computer science and biomedical sciences creates significant opportunities to spin off discoveries in nanotechnology, bioinformatics (the application of computer science to medicine), pharmaceuticals and medical devices. The location of a new joint commercialization office in Shady Grove will help the schools tie in with Montgomery County's existing tech corridor.

Both presidents Perman and Loh are new to their jobs, and they lack the institutional animosity that has historically hindered the kind of collaboration between the two campuses that the state needs. Dr. Perman's key focus has been in interdisciplinary learning and collaboration on his campus — a pediatrician, he runs a clinic in which he brings along not just medical or nursing students but also budding lawyers, social workers, dentists and pharmacists. That sensibility makes him well suited to the task at hand.

And although Mr. Loh is probably best known to the public for the travails of the athletic department since he arrived in College Park — the football team is a mess, and he made the decision to cut eight teams because of the athletic department's budget woes — sports are not why Maryland lured him away from the University of Iowa. He is here, among other reasons, to make the University of Maryland a powerhouse not just of research but also innovation. In a meeting this week with The Sun's editorial board, Mr. Loh spoke convincingly of his efforts to inculcate a spirit of entrepreneurship in both the faculty and students so that they are focused on finding practical and commercial applications for their discoveries. That goal necessitates the kind of collaboration he and Dr. Perman proposed.

In the end, the difference between a merger and a strategic alliance may largely be one of semantics and politics. If this plan can achieve the benefits of a merger without the headaches and expense of creating a new governance structure, all the better.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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