Among the many factors that drove my decision to return to Maryland as chancellor of the University System of Maryland (USM), the tremendous value our state places on public higher education was paramount. Elected officials in Annapolis have made support for the USM a consistent priority. Business leaders across the state have established partnerships with USM institutions to promote workforce development and drive economic activity. Our colleagues in the K-12 sector have significant alliances with the USM to make higher education possible for more of our young people. Community activists work hand-in-hand with the USM to improve quality of life across the state. And the public at large has come to expect — even to demand — an active and engaged university system.
These beliefs were confirmed earlier this fall as I embarked upon a "listening tour" across Maryland. Over the course of four days, several of my colleagues and I crisscrossed the state, traveling 900 miles. I held dozens of meetings, speaking directly with business leaders, educators, farmers, entrepreneurs, government officials, advocates and others. I wanted to talk about their perspectives as to the USM's strengths, challenges and opportunities. I asked directly: "What do you need?" "What can we do?" "What is our bigger role?" "What is missing?" The insight I gained will help direct my actions as chancellor going forward.
In Southern Maryland, I heard from local officials and business leaders about the region's growing R&D economy, fueled by federal assets like the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, higher education assets like the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership and an expanding private sector. We discussed the need for more engineers and engineering programs to support this growth and how the USM can expand its presence at the Southern Maryland Higher Education Center to help.
In Baltimore, I met with community activists about leveraging the USM's "systemness" to better connect with advocates to meet social and educational needs, particularly efforts to improve students' readiness for high school and college. I heard from business leaders and entrepreneurs about expanding USM partnerships, meeting the needs of adult learners and accelerating efforts to improve the success of students at Coppin State University.
In Prince George's County, I spent time meeting with county and local business leaders about the importance of higher education access and affordability and the need for better alignment between higher education and the K-12 community.
Leaders on Maryland's Eastern Shore stressed the need to improve the academic pipeline and the importance of meeting the targeted need for more health professionals. In addition, I met with farmers who emphasized the importance of a more robust cooperative extension system, which has been part of the land-grant mission (which focuses, in part, on practical agriculture) since 1914.
The importance of the USM cooperative extension efforts was echoed in Western Maryland, where the need for assistance is growing as the number of wineries expands statewide.
The final day of the tour included meetings at the USM's two higher education centers, the Universities at Shady Grove and the University System of Maryland at Hagerstown. In both cases, the vital role these centers can and must play in the USM's push to enhance access, affordability and student success was underscored. Also stressed was the importance of these centers as the USM looks to expand business partnerships and enhance our economic impact.
Of course, the USM's ability to meet specific regional needs, as well as broader statewide needs, will largely be dictated by our funding level. With state support accounting for approximately 25 percent of the USM's budget, we will not be able to meet these expectations without a firm commitment from our partners in Annapolis. The USM's commitment is strong, but we need funding to build the capacity to meet expectations.
As I traveled across this great state and spoke with our fellow citizens — business leaders, community leaders, educators, entrepreneurs, local officials and others — time and again it was made clear to me that Maryland wouldn't be the state it is today without the USM. More importantly, Maryland will never be the state it wants to be without the USM. An investment in the University System of Maryland is an investment in the future.
Robert L. Caret is chancellor of the University System of Maryland; his email is firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @rcaret.