Higher education politics

University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. "Brit" Kirwan, who is in the midst of gathering input on the question of whether the University of Maryland-College Park and the University of Maryland-Baltimore should be merged, says it would be a shame if politics took primacy over the interests of higher education. Too late for that. The issue came up in the most political way possible — with Senate President and top College Park booster Thomas V. Mike Miller waltzing into the Budget and Taxation Committee this spring and inserting language that appeared to require the merger. And no matter how many times Baltimore leaders who oppose the plan insist that their interests aren't parochial, they are essentially grounded in an age-old competition between the city and Maryland's Washington suburbs for prestige and resources.

Mr. Miller has at times pitched his idea almost like he was trying to recruit a new Fab Five for the Terps basketball team — combining the two institutions would instantly vault the University of Maryland into the top 10 among public research universities. The benefits of that, beyond sounding cool, are somewhat hard to quantify. Baltimore leaders, including Abell Foundation President Robert C. Embry Jr. and Greater Baltimore Committee President Donald C. Fry, liken a merger to Baltimore losing a Fortune 500 corporate headquarters — despite the fact that the university's professional schools would not actually leave Baltimore; the jobs from the university would stay here; and at heart, we're talking about the governance structure of a state agency, not the moving of a private company.

But the fact that both sides in the dispute may have motivations beyond the question of improving higher education and research in Maryland doesn't mean there aren't important issues at hand. There is tremendous potential for cross-disciplinary work between the professional schools in Baltimore and the academic departments in College Park. The pure science research on the main campus could benefit tremendously from closer cooperation and coordination with the medical, nursing and public health schools in Baltimore. The university's public policy faculty could surely benefit from better coordination with the law school. A top-10 ranking for total research dollars may not much impress faculty the university is trying to recruit, but joint appointments between professional and academic disciplines might.

Furthermore, a key focus of the university system in its plan for the next decade is to increase the commercialization of research produced by faculty. The Baltimore campus is already a prime locus for that effort, with the biotech park just west of Martin Luther King Boulevard, and greater coordination among the research disciplines could further a crucial goal for the state's (and city's) economic development.

The opponents have raised issues that go beyond the parochial, some of which are legitimate and some of which are not. One of the key objections is the assumption that the Baltimore campus would play second fiddle to College Park in a combined institution and, thus, would have more difficulty pursuing its priorities. If the campus wants a new building now, they say, it can go straight to the University System Board of Regents. Under a merger, it would have to filter its priorities through College Park before getting to the regents. But that cuts both ways — it also means that when the Baltimore campus' needs go before the regents, it would not be competing with College Park and would have much more power and influence in the regents' deliberations.

In fact, the leaders of other, smaller institutions in the system are worried about the possibility that a super-university could become a bully in the competition for resources, to their detriment. That worry may be somewhat overblown — other campuses, such as Towson and Salisbury universities, have different missions from the Baltimore and College Park campuses, but it would need to be addressed in any sort of merger.

And the fact that Baltimore leaders' concerns tend toward the parochial doesn't make them altogether invalid. University of Maryland-Baltimore leaders have historically played a major role in Baltimore civic affairs, particularly in the efforts to redevelop the city's west side. If the president of a combined institution was in College Park — a safe bet — he or she wouldn't have the same on-the-ground view of the community around the Baltimore campus and wouldn't likely be invested in the same way in its success.

The regents held a public hearing on the merger question in Baltimore Friday and have scheduled another in College Park on Oct. 28; they will issue a report in December. Two things need to come out of that process. First, come what may, the two campuses need to find a way to work more closely together. Critics of the proposal say there's no reason that can't happen without a merger, but it hasn't yet, not in the decade since Mr. Kirwan first raised the issue in his farewell address before leaving Maryland for a time to lead Ohio State University. Having one person in charge of both campuses would seem like the simplest way to achieve the goal, but if the regents decide that's ill advised or unnecessary, the onus is on them to come up with an alternative for producing greater integration for research and teaching.

Second, legislative leaders need to let the regents evaluate the question without interference, and they need to give great deference to their findings. Senator Miller, in testimony at the public hearing in Baltimore, made a better case for a merger than he has in the past, but his ideas were still couched in the terms he knows best: politics. He suggested that the two institutions maintain separate presidents and faculty senates in which "neither institution would lose assets or internal decision-making ability or ability to request capital projects." He also proposed the creation in Baltimore of a University of Maryland Research Application Center focused on interdisciplinary research and joint appointments. Those ideas may be good or bad, but they are clearly motivated by a desire to mollify the concerns of city leaders.

But the regents need to look at the question apolitically. The built-up mistrust and history of skirmishing between leaders of the two regions is not relevant to the mission of providing the best education, research and economic development for the state. Moreover, the leaders of the two campuses, both of whom are new to Maryland, are not steeped in that conflict. This isn't an issue of prestige or power for Baltimore or the Washington suburbs. It's about how best to make the whole state competitive in the 21st Century, and it needs to be treated as such.

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