Baltimore leaders speak against merger of UMB and College Park

Mayor, others say university's role in city could be diminished if its leadership is moved out of town

October 21, 2011|By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

The University of Maryland, Baltimore could become a diminished player in the city's revitalization efforts if it is combined with the state's flagship campus in College Park, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said at a Friday hearing on the proposed merger.

Rawlings-Blake led a procession of civic leaders, faculty members and students who spoke against the merger plan, which has been championed by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller as a way to improve the flagship university's national reputation and research clout.

"I have serious concerns about this proposed merger," Rawlings-Blake said at the Baltimore campus' student center. "The decision-making authority and autonomy that UMB has benefited from for all these years would go away."

The mayor alluded to past corporate mergers that have led to chief executive officers leaving the city and said that if UMB suffered a similar loss, its vital role in West Baltimore could be jeopardized. "Those are very local decisions that require local authority," she said. "If leadership was removed to another campus, I'm quite certain the urgency of these decisions will evaporate."

Friday's hearing was the first of a pair, designed to give campus and public input to the Board of Regents before the panel submits a recommendation on the proposed merger in December.

Miller raised the idea of a merger last spring, and the General Assembly passed legislation requiring the regents to study the issue.

At Friday's hearing, Miller couched his support for the idea in the language of Maryland's charter for higher education, which says public universities exist to benefit the state and foster economic development. The state's flagship university can't reach its potential on those fronts, he said, with major graduate schools operating separately as part of a different institution.

"No other state with a public higher education system the caliber of Maryland's operates under this kind of fenced-off system of silos between the state's major public research institution and the state's medical and professional schools," the Senate president said in his testimony. "Does a little cooperation exist here or there? Yes, but it is not enough to move the needle in what is not just a national fight but a global competition."

He noted that the vast majority of flagship public universities include a law school or a medical school and that the majority include both.

Miller said he has always supported Baltimore and sees the merger as an opportunity to lift both campuses. He proposed a single flagship with two campuses, two presidents and a joint faculty panel to facilitate interaction between Baltimore and College Park. He suggested placing a center, specializing in the application of research, in Baltimore. He also said the university system should move its central office, currently located in College Park, to the city.

"Neither institution would lose assets or internal decision-making authority or ability to request capital projects," he said. "But to the world they would be one."

Miller was not alone in speaking for the merger. "Anything that increases the likelihood, feasibility and the reality of interdisciplinary studies is good," said Leo S. MacKay Jr., a Lockheed Martin executive who chairs the board of visitors for the School of Public Policy in College Park.

But the majority of speakers said such collaboration could be achieved without a formal merger between the institutions. Several recommended the creation of a faculty panel, chaired by the presidents of the two universities, that would encourage joint research between Baltimore and College Park.

"The kind of collaboration we need has to happen at the level of those who research and those who teach," said Donald Langenberg, former chancellor of the state university system.

Langenberg said a true merger of the universities would be far more complicated than Miller has made it sound. Asked about the prospect of one institution governed by two presidents, Langenberg said, "I frankly don't see how it would work. We don't have two presidents of the United States. We don't have two presidents of the Maryland Senate."

The last line, a gentle dig at Miller, drew laughs.

The faculty and staff senates and student government at UMB all oppose the merger. Richard Zhao, president of the faculty senate, said the university has thrived on independence. "With a merger, you would possibly risk losing the unique culture and its competitive advantages," he told the regents.

The Rev. Alvin Hathaway Sr., whose Union Baptist Church is located near UMB, said he would worry about losing his direct line of communication to the university's leadership in the wake of a merger. UMB's "autonomy provides the community with direct access to a major asset," he said, noting the university's mobile health clinics and work in nearby schools.

"I believe it gets us a bigger university," Rawlings-Blake said of a proposed merger. "But I have not been convinced that it gets us a better university."

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