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Moving UM and UMB closer

UM and UMB should formalize their partnership but not formally merge.

In 2011, when the University System of Maryland Board of Regents was considering a merger of the College Park and Baltimore campuses of the University of Maryland, we supported the idea. The pure-research-focused flagship in College Park and the professional school campus in Baltimore had little combined activity and were missing key potential opportunities for cross-disciplinary scholarship and teaching and for economic development. Given how crucial the knowledge economy is to Maryland's future, we urged leaders to look past parochial concerns and take advantage of the opportunities a combined university could provide.

Now the idea is back in the form of legislation to codify a "strategic partnership" between UM and UMB, and the bill would do a number of important things to formalize and enhance the kind of coordination we supported five years ago. We support that so long as the final legislation is not, as critics contend, a de-facto merger. Two big things have changed in the last five years, and our thinking has changed with them.

The first is that the most important benefits boosters of the merger plan touted five years ago have come to fruition under the current, loose alliance between the campuses known as MPowering Maryland. In the year before the current effort began, faculty from the two campuses submitted four joint proposals for grant funding, one of which was awarded for a total of about $3 million. Last year, the faculties submitted 112 joint proposals and got funding for 36 of them for a total of $26 million. UM Ventures, the joint technology transfer agency for the campuses, has seen a 50 percent increase in annual invention disclosures and 100 percent increases in start-up companies formed and licenses awarded since 2011. Two major joint research centers have been created in that time — the University of Maryland Center for Health-Related Informatics and Bioimaging and the Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology Research — and opportunities for students at each campus to learn at the other have multiplied. Thanks to a strong partnership between College Park President Wallace Loh and UMB President Jay Perman, the two campuses have achieved more than we thought possible without a formal merger.

The second thing that has changed is the degree to which UMB has become a crucial player in the redevelopment of Baltimore. Under Dr. Perman, who was new to his post during the last round of merger talks, the university has substantially deepened its engagement from Lexington Market to the neighborhoods south and west of its burgeoning biopark. Since 2011, for example, UMB has created a mentorship program starting in the middle schools in the surrounding neighborhoods to create a pipeline for inner city youth to pursue careers in health care. It involves hundreds of university staff and 40 students a year. UMB law students are helping community members to expunge criminal records. Pharmacy students are helping neighborhood residents to review their medications. Nursing students are running exercise classes for seniors. The centerpiece of the effort is the UMB Community Engagement Center, opened in September, which has already become a locus for workforce training, childhood enrichment, healthy living classes and more. It is a front door for neighbors to access the wealth of opportunities that have for decades been walled off on the other side of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

We fully support the idea of formalizing the collaboration between UM and UMB. The partnership needs to survive beyond the tenures of Mr. Loh and Dr. Perman. If the state wants to invest more in joint research and commercialization projects between the campuses, that's all the better. If the state wants to move the University System of Maryland headquarters from Adelphi to Baltimore, we're all for it. (No doubt Chancellor Robert Caret and his successors won't mind cutting down on the daily commute from their offiical residence near Pikesville to Prince George's County.) But we object to a provision in the legislation directing the regents, whenever there is a vacancy in one of the campus' presidencies, to consider putting the two under a single leader. The regents arguably have the power to do that already; including the requirement in law clearly puts a finger on the scale. Backers of the bill say they plan to remove that clause from the legislation, and we urge them to do so.

It's theoretically possible that a president operating from College Park (and let's not kid ourselves about which campus would lose its president in this scenario) would exhibit real concern for the communities around UMB. But there's no substitute for sitting in an office, like Dr. Perman does, with a panoramic view of West Baltimore, from the Highway to Nowhere that ripped those neighborhoods apart to the biopark that is slowly helping knit them back together. Perhaps the day will come when Baltimore won't need that kind of institutional attention, but the events of the last year prove we're not there yet.

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