Po­ten­tial draw­backs

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NEWS -

But the fact that both sides in the dis­pute may have mo­ti­va­tions be­yond the ques­tion of im­prov­ing higher ed­u­ca­tion and re­search in Mary­land doesn’t mean there aren’t im­por­tant is­sues at hand. There is tremen­dous po­ten­tial for cross-dis­ci­plinary work be­tween the pro­fes­sional schools in Bal­ti­more and the aca­demic de­part­ments in Col­lege Park. The pure sci­ence re­search on the main cam­pus could ben­e­fit tremen­dously from closer co­op­er­a­tion and co­or­di­na­tion with the med­i­cal, nurs­ing and pub­lic health schools in Bal­ti­more. The univer­sity’s pub­lic pol­icy fac­ulty could surely ben­e­fit from bet­ter co­or­di­na­tion with the law school. A top-10 rank­ing for to­tal re­search dol­lars may not much im­press fac­ulty the univer­sity is try­ing to re­cruit, but joint ap­point­ments be­tween pro­fes­sional and aca­demic dis­ci­plines might.

Fur­ther­more, a key fo­cus of the univer­sity sys­tem in its plan for the next decade is to in­crease the com­mer­cial­iza­tion of re­search pro­duced by fac­ulty. The Bal­ti­more cam­pus is al­ready a prime lo­cus for that ef­fort, with the biotech park just west of Martin Luther King Boule­vard, and greater co­or­di­na­tion among the re­search dis­ci­plines could fur­ther a cru­cial goal for the state’s (and city’s) eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment.

The op­po­nents have raised is­sues that go be­yond the parochial, some of which are le­git­i­mate and some of which are not. One of the key ob­jec­tions is the as­sump­tion that the Bal­ti­more cam­pus would play sec­ond fid­dle to Col­lege Park in a com­bined in­sti­tu­tion and, thus, would have more dif­fi­culty pur­su­ing its pri­or­i­ties. If the cam­pus wants a new build­ing now, they say, it can go straight to the Univer­sity Sys­tem Board of Re­gents. Un­der a merger, it would have to fil­ter its pri­or­i­ties through Col­lege Park be­fore get­ting to the re­gents. But that cuts both ways — it also means that when the Bal­ti­more cam­pus’ needs go be­fore the re­gents, it would not be com­pet­ing with Col­lege Park and would have much more power and in­flu­ence.

In fact, the lead­ers of other, smaller in­sti­tu­tions in the sys­tem are wor­ried about the pos­si­bil­ity that a su­per-univer­sity could be­come a bully in the com­pe­ti­tion for re­sources, to their detri­ment. That worry may be some­what overblown — other cam­puses, such as Tow­son and Sal­is­bury uni­ver­si­ties, have dif­fer­ent mis­sions from the Bal­ti­more and Col­lege Park cam­puses — but it would need to be ad­dressed in any sort of merger.

And the fact that Bal­ti­more lead­ers’ con­cerns tend to­ward the parochial doesn’t make them al­to­gether in­valid. Univer­sity of Mary­land-Bal­ti­more lead­ers have his­tor­i­cally played a ma­jor role in Bal­ti­more civic af­fairs, par­tic­u­larly in the ef­forts to re­de­velop

The re­gents held a pub­lic hear­ing on the merger ques­tion in Bal­ti­more on Fri­day and have sched­uled an­other in Col­lege Park on Oct. 28; they will is­sue a re­port in De­cem­ber. Two things need to come out of that process. First, come what may, the two cam­puses need to find a way to work more closely to­gether. Crit­ics of the pro­posal say there’s no rea­son that can’t hap­pen with­out a merger, but it hasn’t yet, not in the decade since Mr. Kir­wan first raised the is­sue in his farewell ad­dress be­fore leav­ing Mary­land for a time to lead Ohio State Univer­sity. Hav­ing one per­son in charge of both cam­puses would seem like the sim­plest way to achieve the goal, but if the re­gents de­cide that’s ill ad­vised or un­nec­es­sary, the onus is on them to come up with an al­ter­na­tive for pro­duc­ing greater in­te­gra­tion for re­search and teach­ing.

Sec­ond, leg­isla­tive lead­ers need to let the re­gents eval­u­ate the ques­tion with­out in­ter­fer­ence, and they need to give great def­er­ence to their find­ings. Se­na­tor Miller, in tes­ti­mony at the pub­lic hear­ing in Bal­ti­more, made a bet­ter case for a merger than he has in the past, but his ideas were still couched in the terms he knows best: pol­i­tics. He sug­gested that the two in­sti­tu­tions main­tain sep­a­rate pres­i­dents and fac­ulty sen­ates in which “nei­ther in­sti­tu­tion would lose as­sets or in­ter­nal de­ci­sion-mak­ing abil­ity or abil­ity to re­quest cap­i­tal projects.” He also pro­posed the cre­ation in Bal­ti­more of a Univer­sity of Mary­land Re­search Ap­pli­ca­tion Cen­ter fo­cused on in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary re­search and joint ap­point­ments. Those ideas may be good or bad, but they are clearly mo­ti­vated by a de­sire to mol­lify city lead­ers.

But the re­gents need to look at the ques­tion apo­lit­i­cally. The built-up mis­trust and his­tory of skir­mish­ing be­tween lead­ers of the two re­gions is not rel­e­vant to the mis­sion of pro­vid­ing the best ed­u­ca­tion, re­search and eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment for the state. More­over, the lead­ers of the two cam­puses, both of whom are new to Mary­land, are not steeped in that con­flict. This isn’t an is­sue of pres­tige or power for Bal­ti­more or the Washington sub­urbs. It’s about how best to make the whole state com­pet­i­tive in the 21st Cen­tury, and it needs to be treated as such.

No or­ga­ni­za­tion ever got bet­ter by get­ting big­ger. UMB and Col­lege Park will each be bet­ter if left to them­selves. Com­bin­ing them into a sin­gle or­ga­ni­za­tional struc­ture will cause both of them to be less re­spon­sive to the needs of stu­dents and fac­ulty....

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