A research powerhouse

Our view: Combining the University of Maryland-College Park and the University of Maryland-Baltimore would boost prestige — and offer some practical benefits

March 23, 2011

There are a lot of potential advantages and few disadvantages to the idea floated this week by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller to merge the University of Maryland-College Park with the University of Maryland-Baltimore. The two institutions' missions are completely complementary, and together they would form a real national research powerhouse. That would bode well for the institution's ability to attract grant money and top academic talent. Yet because of the nature of UMB, such a merger would be unlikely to upset its students or alumni, who are prone to identify with their schools as part of the University of Maryland — no geographic modifier needed.

Combining the schools would probably save the state some money, though not very much. Because there is little if any duplication between the schools' programs, any savings would be in administrative expenses. But a merger could have larger benefits for the state. For example, joint appointments for faculty in fields like engineering and medicine — just the sort of convergence that is key to our burgeoning biotech economy — would be easier to accomplish if the two schools merged. Plus, the prestige created by an institution that would be one of the largest research universities in the nation would help attract top talent.

University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. Kirwan hinted at the idea more than a decade ago in his farewell address as president of UMCP. He noted that most other states have medical and law schools at their flagship university and that combining the research dollars generated by the two institutions would significantly boost their rankings. In fact, according to material Senator Miller presented to the Budget and Taxation Committee, a combined UM would rank 10th in the nation in total research dollars, eighth among public institutions, and just ahead of Stanford. It would be fifth in the number of doctoral degrees awarded.

One of the top priorities of the University System in its 10-year plan is to increase the opportunities for commercial development of the research being conducted at its member institutions. Accomplishing that will be critically important to Maryland's economic development as it becomes more focused on science and technology. UMCP and UMB are the prime drivers of the scientific research that would be the backbone of such an effort, and combining the schools is only likely to enhance its success.

In a letter to his faculty, UMB President Jay Perman endorsed the concept of stronger ties with UMCP but cautioned that "we should not, and cannot, ignore meaningful, real differences as people, as professions, as distinct institutions." Indeed, Mr. Perman has worked during his brief tenure to strengthen the idea of UMB as an institution and has sought to forge connections between its schools — between medicine and law, or medicine, nursing and pharmacy, for example. But that work makes even more sense in the broader context that a merger with UMCP would provide. There would be no need to convince the graduate students at the various professional schools on the campus that they share an identity; being part of UMCP would instantly provide one.

The geographic distance between the two campuses is made less important by technology, but it does raise one potential concern about a merger. UMB has been successful in developing Baltimore's west-side biopark, both in the sense that it has quickly attracted researchers and in that it has worked well with the existing community. Any plan to merge the two institutions would need to be mindful of that history and should serve to enhance that focus, not lessen it.

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