Merger muddle


Plans for merging Baltimore's public institutions of higher education have a way of rising, phoenix-like, from the ashes of their predecessors. The idea keeps getting shot down because schools have powerful constituencies that don't want to see their alma mater's identity diluted, and because school administrators have a powerful incentive to protect their turf. It keeps floating back up because the current chaotic situation cries out for a more rational allocation of scarce state resources.

The impetus for the latest incarnation of the merger idea comes from projected state budget deficits approaching $1 billion over the next few years. Thus in July, Maryland Higher Education Secretary Shaila Aery proposed merging predominantly black Morgan State University and Coppin State College as part of a regional consolidation plan that also called for merging the University of Maryland at Baltimore and UM Baltimore County.

But when Morgan and Coppin graduates criticized the plan, Aery agreed to form a task force to study how to "enhance and improve the efficiency of the operations" at the two schools -- presumably as an alternative to merger. Now her critics are trying to block even the study, charging that it is a back-door approach to eventual merger.

Given the tortured history of Maryland higher education reorganization plans, that fear perhaps is not entirely unfounded. Yet it shouldn't be allowed to scuttle every attempt to make area schools operate more efficiently. Critics of a merger have a valid point in arguing that Coppin and Morgan have different education missions and that the state should invest more money in both schools. But even if the critics are right, there is still a need for a thorough study to avoid unnecessary duplication of services and to achieve whatever economies of scale are available.

Unless the critics can present compelling evidence that the state is acting in bad faith, it seems to us that Secretary Aery has every right ask for such a study -- and to expect complete cooperation from the schools involved.

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