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Kurt Schmoke: creating a ‘City University for Baltimore’

Kurt Schmoke: creating a ‘City University for Baltimore’
University of Baltimore president Kurt L. Schmoke poses Tue., May 14, 2019. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Public higher education institutions in Baltimore City need to be restructured to serve more effectively the educational and economic needs of the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland. The time has come to create a new governance structure involving the University of Baltimore (UB), Coppin State University and Baltimore City Community College (BCCC). The resulting entity would become the City University of Baltimore.

I reach this conclusion after viewing higher education in Baltimore from a unique perspective. Having served as mayor of Baltimore, president of UB and chairman of the Board of Trustees of BCCC, I recognize that these institutions have a significant impact on the quality of life in the city and the state. The strengths of the institutions outweigh their weaknesses, but there are several ways in which a formal collaboration among these organizations would be mutually beneficial. Streamlining administrative functions, coordinating improvements in digital technology and eliminating duplicative academic programs are just a few of the benefits to be achieved.

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Two models of restructured governance offer guidance on a possible road forward: the City University of New York (CUNY) and the merger of community colleges in Baltimore County, which created the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC). CUNY is composed of 23 colleges, some of which are senior colleges, (i.e., four-year, bachelor-degree granting) and some are community colleges. These colleges are not merged into one another. They retain distinct but complementary missions.

Traditionally, CUNY has served a diverse student body and is well known for providing an excellent education to persons who have been excluded from or unable to afford private universities. CUNY is governed by a single board of trustees appointed by the governor and the mayor. The board appoints a president of each college, who has overall responsibility for the governance and administration of his or her college. Importantly, before any new program is offered at CUNY, it must undergo qualitative review and meet with the approval of appropriate governing bodies at three levels: the colleges, the board of trustees and the state education department. Construction and major renovation at the constituent institutions are overseen by CUNY’s vice chancellor for facilities planning, construction and management.

The other model to consider is CCBC. For years Baltimore County operated three autonomous community colleges: Catonsville, Dundalk and Essex. Recognizing that the county was faced with limited financial resources and that operational efficiency could be achieved through a new administrative model, the three colleges were placed under one governing body with a single chief executive officer, who happens to be an outstanding leader in higher education. By all accounts, the creation of the Community College of Baltimore County in its present form has been of great benefit to the entire metropolitan region.

Analyzing the program offerings of BCCC, UB and Coppin one can easily see how they would complement one another. Coppin, for example, offers degrees in the education of teachers and has a modern science research facility that is not duplicated by UB. In addition to its primary focus on workforce development, BCCC offers programs in robotics/mechatronics technology and in a range of health careers not offered at other institutions. BCCC also has a new president, Debra L. McCurdy, with a distinguished record as an administrator at both two-year and four-year institutions. Her experience in Georgia, where the state merged a community college with Georgia State University, offers a unique perspective to the challenges in Baltimore. UB, of course, is the only institution in the University System of Maryland with a law school and strong undergraduate programs located on the same campus, offering wonderful interdisciplinary opportunities.

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney held a press conference Monday to talk about the impact of President Donald Trump's proposed budget on higher education.

For many years, people have noted the distinct programs at these three institutions of higher education. Unfortunately, there have only been modest efforts to operate in an effective complementary fashion. It is my opinion that the times will no longer permit such small informal efforts, and that major change will only come about through legislatively restructuring the governance of these institutions.

I recognize that the politics of creating a City University of Baltimore will be difficult. Lessons should be learned from other cities, such as Washington, D.C., that have struggled to accomplish something like this. Also there may be concern by some that this restructuring would implicate the lawsuit that is underway involving the state’s historically black colleges and universities and the state secretary of education. In this light, probably the best way forward is for the General Assembly to establish a study committee that can look at this idea solely on its education and economic merits. The report of that committee could then be submitted to the governor, legislative leaders and institutional constituents for consideration of legislative action.

The merits, I hope, will outweigh the politics, and the concept of a City University of Baltimore will be viewed as an idea whose time has come.

Kurt L. Schmoke serves as president of the University of Baltimore. His email is president@ubalt.edu.

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