University of Maryland President Wallace Loh left no doubt this week about what he wants out of the latest talks about the relationship between his institution and the University of Maryland Baltimore — full merger with one president. In a Senate committee hearing on legislation to formalize and enhance a "strategic partnership" between the schools, he was backed up with a parade of other witnesses supporting the idea, ranging from the UM student government president to Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos. Given the heavy backing of the bill by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, its chances in this legislative session look good, despite words of caution from University System Chancellor Robert Caret, who urged more study of the issue.
As a general principle, breaking down the barriers to collaboration between the system's flaship campus in College Park and the professional schools in Baltimore is imperative. The two schools have made tremendous progress in terms of winning funding for joint research projects and translating academic discoveries into economic opportunities under an ad hoc effort known as MPower, and all indications are that they have only begun to scratch the surface. But as Mr. Caret pointed out, this leigslation is complicated, involving many changes to the system and new ideas that have not been thoroughly vetted. He wants the regents to take a year to consider the best approach, just as they did during the last round of merger talks five years ago. We think that's wise.
In particular, lawmakers and the regents need to consider an issue that got scant mention during this week's hearing but which was raised memorably by regent James T. Brady, and that is the potential for the combined institution to suck resources and attention away from the system's other schools. "There are many institutions in the system, and what we do not want as a result of this is ... Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."
That concern is perhaps felt most acutely at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, a research institution whose mission overlaps with those of UM and UMB and which has been shut out of the strategic partnership discussion so far. In a meeting with The Sun's editorial board this week, UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski praised the MPower initiative but noted that his campus, too, is deeply engaged in the kinds of economic development activities merger backers want but isn't being showered with the resources that are going into the UM/UMB partnership.
UMBC boasts extensive partnerships with the tech industry, federal agencies, the military and other institutions — notably including UMB — that help not only prepare its students for the 21st century job market but also spin off an array of start-up companies. UMBC is particularly involved in data science and cybersecurity, Earth and planetary science, and health informatics, which is presently an area of collaboraiton with UMB. "The state needs to support our mission as a research university and one of the nation's leading institutions in producing a [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] workforce that is as diverse as it is," Mr. Hrabowski said, noting that state support for his campus is at the bottom of the university system's target range for an institution of its kind.
In Maryland political circles, Mr. Hrabowski is frequently looked on as something of a miracle worker, an educator who has turned a university that won't turn 50 until next year into a nationally renowned powerhouse on par with far older and better known institutions. His success in training women and minorities for careers in tech fields is crucial to Maryland's twin goals of economic growth and inclusiveness. UMBC is a goose that lays golden eggs, and Maryland cannot afford to neglect it.
In 2011, the regents' study of a potential UM/UMB merger found that the risks outweighed the rewards. Five years later, the success of MPower has mitigated a number of those risks, such as concerns about culture clash between the two institutions, lack of buy-in by faculty and administrators and the potential for excessive bureaucracy. Indeed, former chancellor William E. "Brit" Kirwan, who opposed the merger then, testified in favor of this year's bill, provided that the final version makes no reference to the possibility of eliminating one of the campus presidents. But other potential negatives cited in the regents' report remain, including the possibility that "a merged UMB-UMCP could potentially destabilize the system," "divert current and future resources away from the other institutions" and "potentially inhibit the ability of the other USM institutions, particularly the research institutions, to effectively recruit faculty and students of the highest quality."
There is no question that Maryland stands to benefit tremendously from greater coordination and collaboration between UM and UMB, but the situation simply isn't as dire as it was five years ago. MPower's success has bought Maryland time to make sure it gets the next step right. Lawmakers should take advantage of it.