The Case Against a UMAB-UMBC Merger

THOMAS V. MIKE MILLER

June 16, 1992|By THOMAS V. MIKE MILLER

A Baltimore Sun reporter, in a recent article, candidly observed that the benefits from merging University of Maryland at Baltimore (home of the downtown professional campuses) and University of Maryland Baltimore County ''are a little hard to pin down.'' To say the least. Indeed, the arguments against the merger are even more compelling.

Because The Sun accuses me of personally obstructing the ''merger,'' the public deserves a more thorough examination of this issue than The Sun's parochial higher education editorials, where public relations blather substitutes for sound statewide educational policy.

Proponents say that the merged UMAB/BC will ''instantly'' create a major ''Research I'' university, will narrowly focus on the life sciences, will not duplicate the flagship institution at College Park and will increase federal research grants. And, this ''can be done for practically nothing.''

Sound too good to be true? It is.

Obviously a physical merger of the two institutions is not in the offing, only a paper merger. Essentially, the merger would create a multicampus university. Most students would never set foot on a campus other than their ''home'' campus.

To create a multi-campus system within the University of Maryland System, which is itself a multi-institutional organization, adds complexity and public confusion to an already complex Maryland higher education structure. A chief academic officer at UMBC will still be needed, just as one will be needed at each UMAB professional school, who in turn will report to a president of the merged institution, who in turn will report to the system chancellor. Another layer of bureaucracy to ''coordinate'' the two separate campuses will be created, reporting to the system office ''coordinating'' the 11 university system institutions.

Revamping logos and adding bureaucracy will not spur economic growth.

Interestingly, neither North Carolina nor Wisconsin -- the two states with consolidated higher education systems most like Maryland's -- have multicampus institutions within their state's overall university system.

A merger, after all, is not an academic panacea. National experts studying an earlier proposed merger of UMBC and the University of Baltimore concluded that it didn't make academic sense. Why were no outside experts commissioned to examine the UMAB/BC merger?

Another claim is that a merged UMAB/BC will be a ''Research I'' lTC university, the most research-intensive designation of the Carnegie Foundation. According to Carnegie Foundation officials, however, had UMAB and UMBC been combined at the time of its most recent classification, it would have been classified only a ''Doctorate-granting II'' institution.

Similarly, the claim that a merger would produce increased research dollars to the state also crumbles upon inspection. As UMAB faculty have noted in letters to The Sun, the federal government awards grants on the quality of the faculty member's research proposal, not the size of the faculty member's institution.

So the merger is really for regional public relations. Is that any reason to be against it?

The painful reality is that nationally competitive research universities are expensive to operate. They require large libraries, laboratories and graduate fellowships. How would the state meet the grand expectations that are being created without additional funding? Where is the new funding coming from?

Deftly, The Sun ignores the long-term funding issue, baldly stating that the merger would save ''millions in administrative expenses.'' Precisely how the state would save millions by creating a second comprehensive public research university was never explained by merger advocates in Annapolis. Indeed, the merger is simply a public relations effort to support reslicing the higher education funding pie. But in fact, two jurisdictions in the state -- Baltimore City and Baltimore County -- with about 30 percent of the population already receive half of the state's higher education dollars.

The Sun claims the merged institution in Baltimore will be a ''narrowly-focused'' life sciences university and would not duplicate academic offerings at College Park. This was not the legislation presented to the General Assembly. The actual bill vaguely staked out several fields for the new institution, including health and life sciences, technology and public policy.

By comparison, the Maryland Higher Education Commission has approved a similar-sounding academic plan for College Park, including biological and molecular sciences, engineering, physics and public policy. More telling of the public relations underpinnings of the merger effort is that evidently no current academic offerings at the two institutions would be dropped as a result of the merger.

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