Higher Education Merger Resurfaces


It's the proposal that refuses to die. No matter how man times vested interests try to drown the notion of a merger of the University of Maryland's Baltimore County (UMBC) and Baltimore City (UMAB) campuses, the idea keeps bubbling to the surface. This plan makes so much sense that sooner or later opponents will have to give way.

Now the Maryland Higher Education Commission, and its secretary, Shaila Aery, have gone on record in favor of a UMAB-UMBC consolidation. Their proposal is compelling: "Creating one research university focused on the life sciences, health and technology." This combine would offer students and businesses in the region "a public research university similar to College Park" but narrowly focused on scientific fields of greatest importance to the Baltimore area's economy.

This recommendation parallels the recent decision by the influential Greater Baltimore Committee to concentrate its future efforts on a single goal: turning Baltimore into a national center for the life sciences. A consolidated UMBC-UMAB would be a critical element.

At the moment, the two campuses are on parallel tracks. Undergraduate UMBC's strengths are in biotechnology, computer science and in a budding engineering program. Graduate UMAB's strengths are its first-rate medical school, its nationally recognized work in the health sciences and its professional schools. Both have a research mission with a secondary emphasis on teaching and public service. The two campuses already share graduate programs; a similar melding of other programs should not prove as difficult as opponents contend.

When a merger was proposed two years ago, backers of the plan tried to force consolidation on a resistant UMAB. The resulting furor led to the departure of UMAB's president-designee and the resignation of the chairman of UM's board of regents. The notion of a UMBC-UMAB combine was buried by the regents, but not for long.

UMAB's recent interest in a merger marks a stunning, and welcome, sea change. This consolidation has never been studied in depth (though a consultant did look at, and reject, a UMBC-University of Baltimore merger). Now is the time for campus leaders to jointly express their willingness to work together on this delicate task.

It is now appropriate for the regents to review their earlier decision in light of Baltimore's pressing needs. Developing a center for life sciences in business, government, industry and higher education could be Baltimore's lifeline. A UMAB-UMBC consolidation would be the first step toward fulfilling one of the priorities set out in the 1988 law restructuring Maryland's higher education system -- to improve graduate and professional opportunities in the Baltimore area. The potential for cross-pollenation from such a move is enormous. It would give this region a first-rate research university that can help revitalize Baltimore as a mecca for the life sciences in the next century.

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