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Flawed thinking in push for UM merger

State Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller supports merging the University of Maryland, College Park campus and University of Maryland, Baltimore professional schools in order to raise their national rankings based on total research funding. Compilers of the most widely used rankings, however, are already on the lookout for public university system "mergers" that seek to game the rankings system by combining distinct campuses into a single "merged" entity with a much larger total haul of research dollars.

Research funding data from the National Science Foundation (NSF) are the basis for the authoritative rankings published annually by the Center for Measuring University Performance in its report "The Top American Research Universities," which also includes rankings of top universities by a number of other metrics. The report explains, "To appear more significant in the research competition ... university systems often report the research productivity of all their campuses as if they were one institution ... [However] ... the funding, organization, support structure, physical plant, and other features of an academic research enterprise derives from the actions of geographically defined academic institutions."

Most tellingly, the report notes: "Most evaluation systems in the United States define the unit of interest as the campus, and the National Science Foundation now collects its data in this fashion. The Top American Research Universities has always defined its metrics to apply to an individual campus and not to the system of which a campus may be a part. In the United States, this issue is ... significant because public universities are often organized into large bureaucratic constructs that carry the name university …"

This suggests that even if College Park and UMB merged, their research funding data might still be treated separately in the Center for Measuring University Performance's national rankings. The center's research director, Craig Abbey, told me that factors such as geographic distance between units, a tradition of separate reporting, separate faculty groupings, and governance arrangements are all considered. He illustrated this with examples of "flagship campus-medical institutions" combinations that are each treated in the rankings as two distinct universities. These were the University of Oklahoma (22 miles between the Norman campus and the Oklahoma City medical campus), the University of Kansas (40 miles between the Lawrence campus and the Kansas City medical campus), and the University of Nebraska (56 miles between the Lincoln campus and the Omaha medical campus). In all three examples, a single president was CEO for both campuses combined, but each of the two constituent campuses also had its own CEO serving under the single president.

Mr. Abbey could give no example from the report of a university composed of two or more geographically distinct campuses that was treated in rankings as a single entity. Given the separate histories and organizations of the College Park and UMB campuses, and the 30-plus miles separating them, it seems highly likely that any College Park-UMB merger would not be reported in the center's national rankings as a single entity

There are some less-authoritative rankings, such as the annual tabulation "Academic Research and Development Expenditures" from the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. This allows universities to submit figures summed up across all their various campuses. For example, in the National Center's fiscal year 2009 rankings based on total research dollars, the second-ranked "institution" is "University of Michigan-All Campuses." Michigan's funding figure combines the separate campuses in Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Flint. Thus, the University of Maryland could also report only its figures for the entire UM system to the National Center. The resulting fiscal 2009 figure for "University of Maryland-All Campuses" would be around $950 million; this would place Maryland fourth nationally (trailing only Johns Hopkins, University of Michigan-All Campuses, and University of Wisconsin-Madison).

Note that this huge jump in the rankings would occur without any merger, simply by changing the way we report our research funding figures to the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. This would be considerably less costly and disruptive than going through with a "real" merger (even one that involved no geographic relocations of UM schools).

However, to increase the College Park rankings, in the authoritative "Top American Research Universities" report, we would need to make some (very expensive and disruptive) geographic moves of programs to the College Park campus.

It is clear that a College Park-UMB merger to "game" the rankings would leave the most authoritative rankings unchanged, and that such a merger would not be a requirement for submitting consolidated data for other federal compilations that could increase our ranking substantially.

Supporters of the merger need to find a better rationale for their proposal.

David Salkever is a professor in the Department of Public Policy at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. His email is salkever@umbc.edu.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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