College Park leaders laud proposed merger between state's largest research universities

In contrast to Baltimore hearing, they say combination of campuses would remove barriers to collaboration

October 28, 2011|By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

COLLEGE PARK — — A merger of the state's major research universities in College Park and Baltimore would remove significant barriers to medical and scientific collaboration, said elected officials and academic leaders Friday at a hearing on the proposed combination of the campuses.

Former University of Maryland, College Park President C.D. "Dan" Mote Jr. spoke of missed opportunities over the years because of cultural differences and rivalry between the universities.

"Without a merger, what we see in the historical record — a lack of major collaborations and a number of missed opportunities — is what we'll get in the future," Mote told the university system's Board of Regents. He noted the complementary strengths of the campuses, particularly science and engineering in College Park and medicine in Baltimore, and said that together, "they would be a complete university."

The positive tone offered a sharp contrast to a similar hearing last week at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, where city, faculty and student leaders criticized the proposed merger. They argued that with both universities thriving, the merger is unnecessary and said that UMB's relationship with Baltimore could be weakened if its leadership were relocated to College Park.

At the urging of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, the General Assembly passed legislation last spring requiring the regents to study a possible merger and to submit a report on the issue in December. Miller has argued that a combined university would carry more national prestige and research clout.

Opponents say the universities could combine their strengths without a formal merger. But College Park leaders echoed Miller's sentiments Friday, saying such collaboration would be easier under unified leadership and policies.

Jayanth Banavar, dean of the university's College of Computer, Mathematical and Natural Sciences, said a merger would create a "powerhouse university."

"What truly happens with such a merger is unexpected positive consequences," Banavar said. "A whole will be much greater than sum of parts if a merger is executed successfully."

College Park students were less clear in their support for an outright merger but said they would benefit from stronger ties between the campuses. "It has become quite clear that we are being held back in the rankings and in opportunities for students … by the lack of any collaboration between these two institutions," said Zachary Cohen, director of governmental affairs for College Park's student legislature.

Political leaders from the Washington suburbs also advocated for a merger.

"Collaboration is going to be the future, and you need to make sure the system is structured in a way to enhance that," said state Sen. Richard Madaleno, a Montgomery County Democrat. "You need to find a way to realign to be more successful for people of Maryland."

Del. Dereck Davis, a Democrat from Prince George's County, said a merger could catapult the state's flagship university from good to great. "Just because it's difficult does not mean we shouldn't undertake it," said Davis, who earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from College Park. "I put a great deal of value in prestige. I know many prospective students look at rankings, and it does affect their decisions."

Davis urged the regents to not be dissuaded by parochial interests, an allusion to the concerns that have emanated from Baltimore.

Some Baltimore leaders attended the hearing to reiterate the objections they raised last week. William Wood, a former regent and board member for the University of Maryland Baltimore Foundation, said the merger would be expensive and wouldn't work as well as voluntary collaborations between the two campuses.

"Forced mandates of this magnitude usually don't work," he said.

Not all of those who testified had a dog in the fight. Hunter Rawlings, a former president of Cornell and the University of Iowa, said collaborations between culturally different institutions are "very difficult."

He learned through his attempts to build stronger ties between Cornell's main campus in upstate New York and its medical college, 236 miles away in Manhattan. Rawlings said the effort was worth it because Cornell's medical college accounts for one-third of the university's research funding and because Manhattan-based donors have increased their giving to the Ithaca campus.

"We turned a win-win out of what used to be a lose-lose," he said but added that he did not know if a merger would work in Maryland.

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