Research dollars spur call to merge UMB, College Park

Kirwan welcomes study, which was OK'd by Senate committee

March 22, 2011|By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

Maryland could boast one of the top 10 research universities in the country, simply by establishing a formal bond between programs that already exist. That's the message Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller is pushing after he proposed Monday that the state university system study a merger between its Baltimore and College Park campuses.

"If you're in favor of the state of Maryland, it's a win-win," said Miller. "It could give great stature to both universities and to the state."

Though Maryland's top university administrator supports Miller's request, others have questioned whether the differences between the campuses are too great for a merger to work.

Sen. Jim Rosapepe, a Democrat who represents College Park, said he supports a study but cautioned that "bigger isn't always better. As we've seen on Wall Street and in Washington, organizations can get too big to succeed."

Jay Perman, president of the Baltimore campus, took a neutral stance, saying in a letter to employees that the two institutions should deepen their collaborations but also celebrate their distinctions.

If the House of Delegates and the governor agree with Miller's language — already approved by a Senate budget panel — the system's Board of Regents would have to submit a report on the potential merger by Dec. 15. Though the idea of a merger has previously surfaced in the legislature and among university leaders, the report would represent the most formal step ever taken to consider the concept.

"There has been talk about this for years," said Regent Francis X. Kelly, who was also an important voice on higher education during three terms in the state Senate. "No one disputes the fact that the campuses should be working more closely together. I think the timing is probably right for a good study."

The campuses actually shared a president, though not an identity, between 1920 and 1970. Kelly said he also remembered talking about a merger in 1988, when the General Assembly passed a sweeping reorganization of the university system and formally designated College Park as the system's flagship school. He said the regents have not formally discussed it in recent years.

Miller said he proposed the study this year because he felt the regents missed an opportunity to examine the issue in 2010, when the presidential jobs at both campuses were open.

Chancellor William E. Kirwan welcomed Miller's proposal. "It's certainly an issue that's worthy of serious study," he said. "I think this is an appropriate time."

When Kirwan departed as president of the College Park campus in 1998, he urged more extensive collaboration with the system's Baltimore campus but stopped short of calling for an actual merger.

Though some might assume the merger would represent a cost-cutting measure in these difficult budget times, neither Miller nor Kirwan presented that as a primary motivation. "There might be some efficiencies, but it's less about that than about the greater research portfolio and influence you might be able to create," said Kirwan, who had discussed the issue with Miller before the senator made his proposal.

In calling for the study, Miller said a combined university would rank 10th in the country in total research expenditures (separately, College Park ranks 44th and UMB 45th) and fifth in the number of doctoral degrees awarded. His points closely echoed remarks that Kirwan made in his 1998 speech.

The greatest hurdle to a smooth merger, Kirwan said Monday, might be the substantial differences between the two campuses, both of which would probably remain intact. College Park houses a sprawling undergraduate population and features traditional campus activities such as fraternity parties and basketball games. The Baltimore campus is more urban, less residential and serves older students who are preparing for high-pressure careers in medicine and law.

Perman said his institution would cooperate fully with a merger study. But in a letter to employees, he did not fully embrace the idea of fusing the universities.

"It is my opinion that a strong, functional relationship with UMCP will make us — and them — better," Perman wrote. "At the same time please recall these words from my inaugural speech: 'We should not, and cannot, ignore meaningful, real differences as people, as professions, as distinct institutions. In my view, we should celebrate and leverage uniqueness.'"

In fact, Perman has spent much of his presidency considering ways to brand his university so people will think of it as a unified campus rather than a loose collection of independent programs. For example, he is expected to unveil plans next month that will unite UMB and the University of Maryland Medical System under one banner.

The University of Maryland College Park president, Wallace Loh, was unavailable to comment.

Kelly, who helped lead a recent capital campaign for the Baltimore campus, said a closer working relationship could enhance the reputations of both institutions. Competitors such as the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan, for example, draw strength from combining their undergraduate campuses with elite schools of law and medicine.

"If you combine what we have, you get a real strong engine," Kelly said, despite expressing some reservation about a complete merger.

If Miller's proposal passes, Kirwan said, the likely next step would be for the regents to appoint a committee to examine the potential merger. He said the university system would also schedule public hearings.

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