With its expanding population, rich base of military jobs and lack of a four-year university, Harford County is widely viewed as the next key frontier in Maryland higher education.
Morgan State and Towson University want to establish satellite operations in the county. Both say they can offer unique programs that perfectly suit Harford's need for technology-savvy, business-adept graduates. Both are coveted by county leaders.
Yet the two institutions, which have clashed over programs before, disagree over how the expansion should occur. And Harford officials say the months-long conflict is holding up progress on badly needed improvements to the county's educational offerings.
"Frustration is a mild word for what people here are feeling," says Dennis Golladay, president of Harford Community College. "From our angle, we want to serve students and serve them as quickly as possible, whether that comes from Morgan or Towson or anybody else. We wish there wasn't this squabble over turf that's actually ours."
At issue is a proposed $20 million to $25 million building on the community college's Bel Air campus that would be erected and operated by Towson. Under an agreement between the institutions, HCC students would move seamlessly to the building to complete the final two years of bachelor's degrees in education, business and psychology.
Harford leaders say such "2+2" centers will be a vital part of the state's efforts to improve college completion rates, and they say Towson is a natural partner because so many HCC students transfer to the university.
Morgan officials, however, say it would be unfair for the state to give Towson a valuable stake on this higher education frontier. Instead, they say, the proposed building should be a general higher education center that could be used by many state universities.
"It ought to be built, but it ought to be unbranded," says Morgan spokesman Clinton Coleman. "We're just wondering what the state is planning to do for other universities. On what community college campus can Morgan have its building?"
Towson has offered to lease space in the building to Morgan — which has already received clearance to offer an electrical engineering degree at HCC — and to collaborate with the Baltimore university on programs in Harford County. But Coleman says such offers do not address the fundamental injustice. "This is another in a series of efforts to put one university over another," he says.
Danette Howard, the state's interim secretary of higher education, says she will render a decision on the proposed building in the "near future." She says a resolution on the issue — pending for more than 18 months — has been delayed by leadership changes at both universities and at the Maryland Higher Education Commission but also by the uniqueness of the issue.
"This is really the first time MHEC has been asked to weigh in on this type of proposal, with a four-year institution putting a building on the campus of a community college," Howard says. "It will be precedent-setting, so it's really important that we give careful thought to all of the implications."
Legislators from Harford and Cecil counties recently submitted a bill in the General Assembly that would press MHEC to make a decision.
"The frustration is that our young people are really being deprived of the opportunities they need without any justification that makes sense," says Del. Mary-Dulany James, a Democrat who represents both Harford and Cecil. "The citizens of our region should not be held up like this."
Though less bitter, the standoff between Towson and Morgan is reminiscent of a 2005 battle between the universities over Towson's plan to start an MBA program with the University of Baltimore. Morgan supporters argued that the program violated federal law by duplicating an established program at the historically black school.
Though Towson ultimately won the right to offer the program, the dispute lives on in a federal lawsuit, filed against the state by supporters of Morgan and other historically black institutions.
Both Morgan and Towson have different presidents than during the previous battle, and both leaders say they've shared pleasant conversations about working together. But new Towson President Maravene Loeschke sounds just as baffled as her predecessor by the difficulty of finding a compromise
"I don't quite understand what the problem is," Loeschke says. "We have offered to share the building, either by sharing the cost or by leasing space, and so far, they have not been interested. We would love to have them partner on the building and do collaborative programs up there."
Loeschke sees no injustice in the proposed building. She says Towson simply stepped forward to meet the needs of a region that feeds hundreds of students a year to the university. "This whole thing is being held up when students need us," she says. "They needed us two years ago."