German campus fights closing

Consortium of schools may take over where UMUC gave up

May 09, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

When the University of Maryland, University College pulled the plug this year on its only foreign residential campus, university officials argued that the campus' finances made it impossible to sustain.

As it turns out, not everyone agrees. Faculty and staff members at the campus in southwestern Germany say that a consortium of other schools is close to agreeing to take over the campus.

The loss, say those trying to save the campus, is Maryland's.

"It's a big opportunity wasted," said Nil Sismanyazici, an educational consultant in Montgomery County who was in the German school's founding class. "All around the world, American universities are looking for new locations and partnerships. Maryland had this foundation there and could have made good use of it."

In January, UMUC, the state university system's distance education branch, announced plans to close its 10-year-old campus in Schwabisch Gmund, a small city near Stuttgart, at the end of the spring semester.

Faculty members and alumni staged an aggressive campaign to save the school by persuading the Maryland system to keep it or by finding another university to take it over.

They wrote to Gov. Parris N. Glendening and members of Maryland's congressional delegation, sought meetings at UMUC's headquarters on the University of Maryland, College Park campus, and courted universities around the world.

With a few weeks to go before the scheduled shutdown, they say it appears likely that a consortium of schools - including Anglo-American College in Prague, Czech Republic, Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland, and possibly two unnamed American schools - will take over the campus.

"There are high hopes ... that the campus can be back in operation as early as January 2003," faculty member Gary Anderson said in an e-mail.

UMUC opened the campus in 1992 on a former U.S. military base, intending it to be a beacon of U.S.-style higher education in the heart of Europe, a four-year residential college issuing American degrees and teaching classes in English but drawing students of various nationalities. The curriculum was weighted toward business, with a humanities underpinning.

A decade later, UMUC officials say, the mission is failing. The campus' enrollment is 263, well short of capacity. There are only 17 full-time faculty members, and the school is losing money.

UMUC operates classroom locations at 100 overseas locations, most of them on U.S. military bases. Last year, according to figures on UMUC's Web site, about 47,000 service men and women took UMUC courses.

With the university system facing budget cuts and with UMUC shifting its focus toward online education, the campus isn't worth sustaining, UMUC officials say.

"It was a difficult decision for us, but necessary from a financial perspective," said UMUC spokesman David Freeman.

Those trying to save the campus dispute UMUC's assessment, saying the school's deficit is much smaller than the $1 million quoted by UMUC and that enrollment was expected to top 300 in the fall, partly because of the German government's recent certification of the school.

They also question UMUC's financial constraints, noting the success of its online programs, enrollment in which is expected to double to 31,000 within 10 years.

The school's backers say they realize it might not fit with UMUC's new emphasis on online classes.

But they say they can't understand why the rest of the state university system wouldn't want the school as a European outpost, especially at a time when the system is trying to raise its international profile.

"We have the will and means to give American students a firsthand experience of life abroad," faculty members wrote in a letter to Glendening.

The lobbying didn't pan out. Even if the campus' enrollment increased, Maryland officials said, they would have to spend heavily on infrastructure to accommodate more students.

"We came to the conclusion that if UMUC couldn't do it, it couldn't be done," said system spokesman Francis Canavan.

Faculty and staff members hope the consortium takeover will be made final because, with such short notice of the closing, many have struggled to find jobs for the fall, although UMUC has placed most students at other schools.

The campus also hasn't had time to find a partner that could grant U.S. degrees - a key to the campus' appeal. "No warning was given to anyone," Anderson said.

Faculty member Thomas Maulucci said UMUC's decision upset many in Schwabisch Gmund, which owns the campus and recently signed a five-year lease with UMUC.

In an e-mail from Prague, Anglo-American College President Joseph Drew said he didn't understand why UMUC had decided the campus was not viable.

"Perhaps UMUC was looking at the glass half-empty; we see it half-full," he said. "Personally, I would hope that UMUC would revisit this decision. It was precipitous, and perhaps on reflection they will reverse themselves."

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