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Students raise concerns about partnership of UMD campuses

Students raise concerns about partnership of UMD campuses
Dr. Jay Perman, president of the University of Maryland Balitmore, speaks at a townhall event on the bill to partner with the University of Maryland College Park. (Cody Boteler)

Both houses of the Maryland legislature have approved a bill that will more tightly link the University of Maryland, College Park, and the University of Maryland, Baltimore. The legislation awaits the signature of Gov. Larry Hogan.

The University of Maryland Strategic Partnership Act of 2016 will, according to language in the bill, "formal[ize] a strategic partnership between certain higher education institutions to be called the University of Maryland."

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Along with, supporters hope, an increase in national research rankings, one of the reasons listed on the bill for linking the two campuses is that all institutions in the Big 10 athletic conference have schools of law and medicine—programs that College Park does not currently have.

The bill, which originally had the potential to combine the two campuses under one single president, will instead link the institutions to boost national standings, increase state spending at Towson University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and require that the University System of Maryland move their headquarters to Baltimore.

Through the whole process, however, students at UMB have felt out of the conversation.

Geoffrey Heinzl, the UMB student government president, said that amendments made to the house bill have made "the pill much easier to swallow."

"But a veto from Gov. Hogan would be met with some relief," Heinzl said in an email.

Heinzl said that students were "blindsided" by the bill when it started gaining traction.

"We felt like we had no voice in its crafting and are now fighting really hard to have some voice in the final product," Heinzl said.

Heinzl said he was opposed to the measure not because enough research hasn't been done into the future impacts of the partnership between the campuses.

Fernando Kirkman, a second year law student at UMB, echoed those sentiment, saying he felt "shock" over the bill's passage.

"It seems like such a large decision with such significant ramifications on the system at large, it just seems kind of shocking that the legislature is willing to pass a bill—the way I read it—to merge the two largest universities in less than six months, it boggles my mind."

At one point during the process, the University System of Maryland asked for at least 12 months to study the ramifications of combing the universities in a "strategic partnership." As the bill reads now, it would take effect October of this year.

If the bill is signed by Hogan, students worry it could lead to programs departing for the University of Maryland's anchor campus.

"Largely, Baltimore students don't find that their is much to gain from a merger with UMD, and that our campus would potentially be overshadowed both in terms of funding, and transparency in decision making," Sawyer Spurry, a student in his first year of the clinical nursing program, wrote in an email. "Some students even fear that programs/schools could be moved to the College Park campus."

Kirkman echoed those fears. "One of my biggest fears is that I don't see how the University of Maryland as it will be called, will remain in Baltimore," he said. "I don't see what would stop UMD from moving anchor institutions from UMB to College Park. That kind of scares me a little bit."

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Sen. Bill Ferguson, whose district, 46, covers South Baltimore and around the Inner Harbor, sponsored the bill in the Maryland Senate. He said that there are two major drivers behind pushing for this "strategic partnership" now.

"The first is that Baltimore City had a tough year," Ferguson said. "My colleagues and I that represent the city have been looking for opportunities to rethink the way that we do business to provide a better future for the city. We have an amazing anchor institution in the city in UMB, it is such an asset to the city that if we can enhance it, it'll be better for the city overall."

The second reason, Ferguson said, was to codify the partnership between College Park and Baltimore, known as MPower. The agreement was made a few years, giving students from one campus easier time getting resources from the other. By making this "strategic partnership" law, the idea is that that partnership won't go away, because, right now, it only exists because the presidents at both schools want it to exist.

Ferguson said that he feels the bill would help both Baltimore and the entire state. He sees "economic growth potential" in linking the two universities.

Overall, Heinzl, the UMB student government president, said that campus was "mildly negative" about the whole thing.

"I think College Park will get many more direct benefits and our students will not be directly affected, and only be mildly indirectly affected," he said.

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