Miller wants new university research center in Baltimore

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has called for the establishment of a center in Baltimore for the state's top two public research universities to seek funding of joint projects — a step toward his eventual goal of "reunification" for the institutions.

The Calvert County Democrat also called for the Baltimore and College Park campuses to run more joint programs at the University of Maryland's Shady Grove campus in Montgomery County, indicating that he has not given up his long-term aim of merging the three under a single banner.

In an interview Thursday in advance of next week's convening of the General Assembly, Miller said he expects progress on establishing a Baltimore research center during the 90-day session that begins Wednesday. He said he hoped the university system's Board of Regents would create such a center on its own but indicated he would be willing to force the issue through legislation if necessary.

University system Chancellor William E. Kirwan said he doesn't foresee any conflict, because he and the campus presidents are mapping out a planned alliance that would include collaborations similar to those called for by the Senate president.

"I have every reason to believe that what we're doing is very consistent with the regents' desires and also very similar to what Mike Miller is hoping to see happen," Kirwan said. "To be honest, I think everybody is on the same page here."

Miller's comments came about a month after the regents voted unanimously to reject the concept of a merger of the research campuses. The regents' report on a possible merger was ordered by the General Assembly, at Miller's behest, during last year's legislative session.

Instead of a merger, the regents called for a strategic alliance that would include a joint center for medical innovation, a joint program devoted to creating business from academic research, and joint programs in bioscience and biomedical research, public policy, law, sociology and social services. They also called for the universities to report their research funding, which totals more than $1 billion annually, as a single sum, a move that could vault the institutions ahead in some national rankings.

The regents ordered Kirwan and the presidents of the two campuses, Jay Perman in Baltimore and Wallace D. Loh in College Park, to come up with an action plan for the alliance by March 1.

"It's too early for me to say exactly what will be the final elements of the alliance," Kirwan said. "But the regents made it clear that they want this to be a meaningful partnership that will include substantial means of collaboration."

The proposed center for medical innovation seems substantively similar to Miller's idea for a joint research center in Baltimore. System leaders have preliminarily discussed modeling the center on Boston's Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology, a consortium of top teaching hospitals.

Perman said the idea for a joint center is "very much a part of our discussions." Of Miller's comments, he said, "I'm sure he wants to see something real come out of this, and his desire is matched by ours."

Kirwan was firm Thursday in saying the regents do not see the proposed collaborations as a step toward full merger. He said the board sees an alliance as the better solution because "the collaborations could be targeted to produce the benefits we all want without the bureaucratic hassles of merging two complex institutions."

Miller said that for now, he would not push for a full merger. The Senate chief said he saw a window of opportunity for the action in 2010, when both campus presidencies were vacant. He wanted one president to lead both but said he's now content to let Loh and Perman work together — especially on projects that combine the strengths of the medical school in Baltimore and the engineering department at College Park.

"I said let's keep the two presidents and work toward reunification," Miller said.

The Senate president said he believes Gov. Martin O'Malley is on board with his proposal but added that he hasn't discussed it with House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

Busch said Thursday that he supports collaboration between the campuses but doesn't see the need for formal intervention from the General Assembly. "People believe there are things that the Baltimore campus and the College Park campus have in common that they can share with alignment and without an actual merger," the speaker said. "I think they can do that without legislation."

Miller hinted that he's willing to apply some pressure if necessary, noting that the university system has to come to the General Assembly when it needs money.

"We're asking the regents to move quickly on these issues, and we'd like one name to define the two institutions," he said. "You market as University of Maryland."

Kirwan said both campuses already market themselves as the University of Maryland but that once a new alliance is in place, it would also become a prominent selling point for both institutions.

He added that the new working relationship will not come for free. "To realize the full potential of the alliance, we will require a significant state investment," Kirwan said. "Though I'm not yet in a position to be specific."

Baltimore Sun reporter Annie Linskey contributed to this article.