Hebrew, Towson colleges in talks

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore Hebrew University, grappling with a long-term decline in enrollment, is in negotiations to become a part of Towson University, officials said. The state Board of Regents has informally indicated its approval of the talks.

The plans are not complete, but the heads of both institutions said they believe negotiations will succeed.

As part of Towson, Baltimore Hebrew would maintain its identity, said Jonathan Lowenberg, chairman of the board of the 90-year-old college.

"Baltimore Hebrew University, as with any number of small universities around the country, faces financial issues and the ability to grow our programs as we think is appropriate," he said. Last spring it began talks with several universities, of which Towson appeared the most enthusiastic.

Towson President Robert Caret said the partnership would be a "win-win" by bringing an established program into a university with a growing presence in the Jewish community.

Towson's Jewish Studies minor is strong, he said, and last fall Towson was selected by the board of regents to establish a Center for Excellence to study the Holocaust and issues of genocide and human rights.

"It adds a dimension that we never could have achieved on our own - taking a very mature series of programs and melding them into our campus," Caret said, referring to the proposed partnership.

Towson has about 20,000 undergraduate and graduate students on its 328-acre York Road campus.

Baltimore Hebrew's enrollment, which was at 370 in 1994, declined to 118 by 2007, most of them graduate students, according to the Maryland Higher Education Commission.

Lowenberg said he did not have exact figures for this year but rumors about the school's future have made recruiting difficult.

The school also needs to find a new location by 2010, when The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, which owns the college's Park Heights Avenue location in Northwest Baltimore, will use the property for social service programs.

Founded in 1919 as a Jewish teachers college, Baltimore Hebrew is nondenominational but has a Judaic academic focus. Primarily a graduate school, the college says it produces 20 percent of the country's master's degrees in Jewish education. It is one of five such Hebrew colleges in the country; the others are in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York.

The school also holds a popular series of adult education classes on topics such as modern and biblical Hebrew and Jewish history and culture, art and philosophy. The classes are taught by the school's faculty and by Baltimore-area Jewish leaders.

Baltimore Hebrew took a hit in 2007, when The Associated said it would cut its annual contribution from $1.1 million to $600,000 over five years. The Associated's grants represented 40 percent to 60 percent of the school's budget.

Marc B. Terrill, president of The Associated, issued a statement saying the federation "supports Baltimore Hebrew University in its efforts to form a partnership with Towson University."

"We believe that a program like this could offer a valuable resource and a rewarding choice," he said, "for not only students that are seeking advanced degrees in Jewish studies but also adult learners looking to increase their general knowledge about Jewish culture and history."

Lowenberg said negotiations have taken place at all levels, including the academic and financial sides, about how Baltimore Hebrew would become part of Towson.

The arrangement would most likely require formal approval from the state board of regents, which has given Caret an informal go-ahead to continue the talks. The Maryland Higher Education Commission has also been apprised of them.

"I think it's a wonderful opportunity for both institutions," said regent David Nevins. "A longstanding institution of much repute is able to survive, albeit in a slightly different form, but in a form where it is partnering with a very much up-and-coming institution in the form of Towson."

He said Towson is becoming a university of first choice in the Jewish community. The school's Hillel group has been in existence for just over a decade.

Baltimore Hebrew expects to break even financially this fiscal year after bringing in a new president in 2007 who had fundraising expertise. But prospective students continue to question its future.

"It's understandable that people would not want to make a commitment to a program if they didn't think the program was going to be in existence long enough to complete their degree," Lowenberg said.

"Time is of the essence in these negotiations because we do need to continue recruiting and to grow our programs."

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