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At a town hall meeting, faculty, staff and alumni questioned a proposal to create a city university system from Baltimore City Community College, Coppin State University and the University of Baltimore.
At a town hall meeting, faculty, staff and alumni questioned a proposal to create a city university system from Baltimore City Community College, Coppin State University and the University of Baltimore. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun)

University of Baltimore President Kurt Schmoke defended the broad outlines of his proposal to create a city university system at a Friday town hall meeting where the idea was politely skewered by some faculty, alumni and community members.

Schmoke introduced the idea to the public in an op-ed in The Baltimore Sun this summer, suggesting that the city’s three urban campuses — UB, Coppin State University and Baltimore City Community College — combine their administrative functions to create efficiencies.

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But some questioned whether the end result would instead be a merger of what are seen as distinct institutions. University of Baltimore has a law school, business school and other graduate programs, while BCCC is two year community college and Coppin is primarily a four year school.

“I am not for the elimination of the identities of the institutions, that includes Coppin,” Schmoke said.

He called suggestions about a merger an attempt to kill the proposal.

The proposal may be in front of the legislature next session, and Schmoke said there is support for a study to look at whether his proposal would work.

“This isn’t a demand,” Schmoke said. “This is just an idea."

Under his idea, the three schools would be governed by a single board of trustees under the broader University System of Maryland umbrella. Administrative functions would be streamlined and each campus would offer different specialized programs that students at any campus could take. Schmoke is using the City University of New York as a model. Created nearly 60 years ago, the state of New York united several municipal colleges into an integrated system that’s grown to include two dozen campuses.

However, Schmoke’s proposal has set off a round of criticism and discussion in the community, in part because he failed to engage the faculty and staff of the institutions before he went public with the idea.

“Shouldn’t there have been a discussion among the three presidents before?” asked Mary Owens-Southall, president of the Coppin alumni association.

Coppin is currently interviewing candidates to take over as president, and Owens-Southall asked why anyone would take the job knowing that the structure was under review. “Who would want to walk into a place like this when you would have to fight from day one for existence?” she asked.

However, the BCCC’s new president, Debra L. McCurdy, said she supported the idea of having an in-depth discussion about Schmoke’s proposal.

“I support the conversation. I don’t support a merger,” she said. “We are going to have to move forward with these discussions.”

Schmoke also drew pointed criticism from Zattura Sims-El, an advocate for the state’s historically black colleges and universities, which are locked in a struggle with the state for more funding. A 13-year-old case claims Maryland fostered segregation by allowing better-funded academic programs at the traditionally white universities to undermine similar ones at the historically black schools. Gov. Larry Hogan has offered $200 million to settle the lawsuit, far less than the advocates want.

“Why is it you are not advocating the state to end its racist practices?” Sims-El asked Schmoke, adding that she believes that state officials would eventually merge the institutions.

Schmoke did say that if the proposal goes through, he believes state legislators eventually might ask the colleges to eliminate redundancies in academic programs at the different campuses. The institutions must be prepared to justify why a nursing program at one institution might be significantly different than that a second, he said. Legislation is needed, he said, because efforts to support research collaboration between institutions have failed in the past.

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Collectively, Schmoke argued, the three city institutions are smaller in student population than the University of Maryland, College Park, and he believes that the legislature would call for efficiencies even if a city university system isn’t created.

BCCC math professor Edward Ennels said he has mixed feelings about the idea.

“I am opposed at the moment until we have all the details,” he said.

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