A renewed push by state lawmakers to combine the flagship University of Maryland, College Park with the health- and law-focused University of Maryland, Baltimore could give the state a dual-campus powerhouse that would leverage the strengths of both institutions to launch new programs, discoveries, and businesses, supporters say.
Legislation sponsored by Sen. Bill Ferguson and Del. Curt Anderson and backed by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller would move the 80-employee headquarters of the state university system from Adelphi to Baltimore and establish a ventures office to help faculty and students market their inventions commercially.
The measure is controversial. The presidents of the two institutions disagree on the plan — one supports it; the other doesn't — and the governing board of the University System of Maryland is also divided.
The Board of Regents, which oversees 12 of the state's public universities, met Wednesday to discuss the matter, but opinions were "all over the spectrum," spokesman Mike Lurie said, and no consensus was reached. Several regents plan to testify at a hearing on the bill on Tuesday, Lurie said.
A similar effort five years ago drew criticism from Baltimore leaders, who thought it would shift power away from the city. It was rejected by the regents. Instead of merging, the two universities agreed to work more closely in a partnership called "MPower," now widely viewed as a success, in which they share some faculty and programs.
As it did five years ago, the new proposal prompted concern in Baltimore. Jay Perman, president of the Baltimore university, was among those raising questions about the impact of combining the two universities.
Ferguson and Anderson are Baltimore Democrats. Ferguson said the bill contains many provisions to strengthen the city. It would allot $1 million annually to encourage businesses growing out of the ventures office to locate in Baltimore, and ensure that the Baltimore university's professional schools — the medical school, the law school and other graduate programs — remain in the city.
"The old-world way of thinking for Baltimore has really focused on circling the wagons and protecting what we have," said Ferguson, a graduate of the law school. "I think that we have to approach the next two decades with a very different mentality. Having a campus of the flagship in Baltimore can only help us move forward."
Supporters say the flagship universities in most states include medical and law schools. A combined university would rise up the national rankings in research spending.
Supporters also say it would be easier to attract top faculty and students to a combined institution, and bringing together separate fields of study, such as the engineering department in College Park and the medical school in Baltimore, could lead to new discoveries that could be commercialized.
The bill calls for keeping separate presidents for the campuses in College Park and Baltimore and would allow — but not require — the regents to appoint a single president if one of the presidents stepped down.
Perman said he favors the increased collaboration that came out of the MPower agreement, but a merger would cost his university its unique identity as an anchor institution. He also said it could jeopardize recent collaboration between his institution and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
"I strongly believe, whether it's me or anybody else, that you need to look out at West Baltimore every day, engage with the community every day, you need to live in Baltimore as I do, and feel Baltimore and be concerned about Baltimore," he said.
That can't happen, he said, if leadership is based in College Park.
A merger would be a reunification: The two institutions were a single university from 1920 until 1970.
Miller, a graduate of both College Park and the law school, was behind the previous merger proposal. He has co-sponsored Ferguson's legislation.
He said the 30 miles that separate the two campuses are less of a barrier in the Internet age.
"This is about the state of Maryland," he said. "It's not about promoting one campus over another. It's about moving our research forward, moving our startups forward, making Baltimore the place it once was and can be again."
House Speaker Michael E. Busch backs the concept but has some concerns about executing it, his chief of staff said.
"The speaker is certainly open to the idea," Chief of Staff Alexandra Hughes said. "He wants to ensure the universities maintain a strong Baltimore presence and continue to serve as being some of the best in the country."
Supporters steered clear of calling it a merger, preferring "strategic partnership." But the surviving institution would be known as The University of Maryland, and some overlapping administrative jobs at the two colleges would be combined.
University system officials said it was too early to say how many positions could be combined, or lost.
Anderson said the legislation would ensure that the structures of the two institutions remained intact. Some Baltimore leaders feared that the previous measure would have meant the medical and law schools would move out of the city.
Wallace Loh, president of the College Park institution, said the legislation could build on the successes of MPower.
Under that agreement, an engineering professor in College Park and a neurosurgeon in Baltimore collaborated to invent a tiny robot that can remove brain tumors. The invention has been patented and is on its way to commercialization, he said.
The universities have grown from one joint faculty appointment to 60, and those professors have generated $70 million in research funding.
Loh said he wasn't concerned about whether one or two presidents would lead the combined institution.
"We have lost as a state 40 years of research opportunities and advances because we were separated," he said. "Once we bring the two together, there's far more that we can do."
The president of the student body in College Park agreed.
"It's something that's really beneficial to students of College Park and UM Baltimore," Patrick Ronk said. "It can keep the highest-ranking Maryland high school students in the state, and we would attract more really qualified out-of-state students as well."
University system Chancellor Robert Caret said in a statement that he was still reviewing the legislation and would offer an opinion at a later date.
Regent James Brady said he feared the Baltimore institution would be "totally subsumed" by College Park, which he said would hurt Baltimore at a time when the city is in "crisis."
"It is a takeover by College Park of UMB," Brady said. "At the first opportunity there will be one president, and it will not be the Baltimore president, I assure you."
Regent Gary Attman called the bill "MPower on steroids."
"I think we all want to be protective to Baltimore City," he said. "But I don't see any downside."
Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article from Annapolis.