University of Baltimore president Kurt L. Schmoke's plan to strengthen and shakeup the area's higher education structure has drawn praise and calls for more examination, but much work remains.
University of Baltimore president Kurt L. Schmoke's plan to strengthen and shakeup the area's higher education structure has drawn praise and calls for more examination, but much work remains. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

University of Baltimore President Kurt Schmoke is proposing three of the city’s institutions of higher education be restructured in a style similar to the City University of New York, an idea he acknowledged is politically divisive but believes could strengthen the schools and benefit students.

Nearly 60 years ago, the New York State Legislature formally established the CUNY system — uniting several municipal colleges into an integrated system that’s grown to include two dozen campuses.

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Schmoke is suggesting the University of Baltimore, Baltimore City Community College and Coppin State University follow suit, together becoming what he’s dubbed the City University of Baltimore.

“With collaboration,” Schmoke said, “we could serve this community much better.”

In an op-ed published in The Baltimore Sun, Schmoke argued that this model — in which the schools could be governed by a single board of trustees under the broader University System of Maryland umbrella — would help streamline administrative functions and prevent duplicating academic programming.

He said in an interview that it also would make it easier for students to take specialized courses across campuses and transfer between schools.

University System of Maryland Chancellor Bob Caret supports the idea. He envisions a student putting in two years at BCCC, before seamlessly moving up to Coppin State, a four-year institution. After that, he said, some students might go on to do their graduate studies at the University of Baltimore.

“We have significant retention issues at all of those campuses,” Caret said. “The guidance would help keep students in the pipeline.”

The three schools serve diverse populations, with many non-traditional students.

“I hope people get a chance to listen to his ideas and have a robust discussion before we make up our minds.”


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Schmoke said the idea has been percolating for years. As he analyzed the schools’ finances, looked at the dwindling number of Baltimore high schoolers and observed that the colleges seemed to be competing for the same adult learners, “it seemed to me that we ought to figure out a way to serve the community in a more effective way, in a complementary fashion,” he said.

Each of the colleges affected by his proposal has grappled with declining enrollment in recent years, leading to financial concerns for institutions that depend on tuition for funding.

Two years ago, the University of Baltimore had to cut nearly 400 employees’ salaries as part of a cost-saving plan that also included a hiring freeze, out-of-state travel restrictions and limits on departmental spending.

BCCC, meanwhile, has been under intense pressure to improve its low graduation rate and become a more attractive choice for city residents, many of whom eschewed the local community college in favor of the one in Baltimore County. Schmoke is also chairman of BCCC’s Board of Trustees.

And at Coppin, undergraduate enrollment declined roughly 12 percent between 2014 and 2018 — a period when overall enrollment in Maryland public colleges was exploding.

Schmoke, a former Baltimore mayor, acknowledged his proposal will likely rankle some, including alumni, legislators and students. In the past, mentions of mergers have ignited a firestorm over the thought that schools would lose their identities.

Baltimore Sen. Cory McCray said it’s a worthwhile discussion to have, but one that must be handled thoughtfully and respectfully. As a BCCC grad himself and husband of a Coppin State alumna, he said he’s keenly aware of the role these schools have in their communities. Coppin State is one of four historically black colleges in Maryland.

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“This can’t be fast-tracked,” he said. “We don’t want to lose that kind of history.”

Schmoke is quick to differentiate his proposal from a “merger.” It’s more of an alliance, he said, pointing to the CUNY system, under which the two dozen colleges have retained their individuality.

“There are ways to improve collaboration without a merger,” he said.

Del. Maggie McIntosh, an influential Baltimore Democrat, said she hopes the General Assembly does not dismiss Schmoke’s idea.

Lawmakers in Annapolis would be the ones to order such a restructuring, and Schmoke is asking them to form a committee to study the idea’s educational and economic ramifications.

“I hope people get a chance to listen to his ideas and have a robust discussion before we make up our minds,” McIntosh said. “I’m very open to the discussion. I hope there will be openness in the legislature. ... Anything we can do to strengthen all three campuses.”

Similar kinds of ideas have failed in the past.

In 2016, then-BCCC president Gordon May vehemently opposed a recommendation that the school join the University System of Maryland. Baltimore’s community college is the only one in Maryland that’s state-run.

May testified the move would reduce the school’s flexibility, and told lawmakers “the last thing we need is a structural or governmental overhaul.”

But a confluence of forces, supporters say, make now a good time to consider bringing the CUNY-model to Baltimore. Schmoke is a leader both at BCCC and University of Baltimore, and momentum is building around the community college and Coppin, thanks to a new financial aid program.

“There are a lot of moving pieces. This is a good time to do as Kurt has said — study this and see if there isn’t a city college model that could be beneficial to all three campuses,” McIntosh said.

Before Mayor Catherine Pugh resigned over questions about her business dealings, she championed a program making tuition free at BCCC for students who graduate from city public schools.

Coppin State officials followed her announcement by saying they plan to offer free tuition to graduates of city public high schools who then earn associate degrees from BCCC.

The community college just brought on a new president, Debra McCurdy, who said she is open to discussions around Schmoke’s proposal but doesn’t have enough information to take a formal position.

“It deserves for us to look at all the options and opportunities that may go along with this kind of governance," she said.

Coppin is in the process of looking for a new leader, too. Interim president Mickey Burnim said Schmoke’s idea to study the feasibility of a City University of Baltimore is “interesting and bold.”

“The fact that it comes from one who knows Baltimore and its people very well and has demonstrated his deep caring for both over many years, lends credence to its potential," Burnim said in a statement. "I believe that nothing is lost by reserving judgment until the study has been done and all concerned have a chance to evaluate it.”

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In other ways, the timing is tricky.

A more than decade-old lawsuit involving Coppin and three other Maryland HBCUs may be wrapping up soon. A coalition of HBCU supporters accused the state of fostering segregation by allowing well-funded academic programs at traditionally white universities to undermine similar ones at their schools, perpetuating segregation.

A panel of judges on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the case “can and should be settled," with the court setting a deadline for the end of this month.

The settlement has the power to dramatically re-shape the higher education landscape in Maryland, and it’s been called the most important college desegregation case in decades.

“I am concerned with how this will impact the HBCU lawsuit,” Baltimore Del. Cheryl D. Glenn said.

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