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Posted at 05:33 PM ET, 10/24/2011

Five arguments against a University of Maryland merger


(A researcher at the University of Maryland in College Park. Many faculty at the sister campus in Baltimore argue that a proposed merger of the two schools could potentially slow the pace of research. - (Jeffrey Macmillan/For The Washington Post))
As president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore, Jay Perman has to start any interview about the proposed merger of his campus and the flagship University of Maryland campus in College Park with a disclaimer: If he is for or against this institutional marriage, he isn’t telling.

Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) has proposed a merger of College Park, the premier public campus in the state university system, and Baltimore, a distinct campus that houses nationally ranked law and medical schools. He asked trustees of the state system to produce a report on how it might be accomplished.

Most of the opposition so far seems to be parochial in nature. Baltimore’s mayor and members of its legislative delegation spoke against it at a hearing last Friday. A merger would deprive the city of an independent public university at a time when city leaders are trying to revitalize the neighborhood around the university campus. Most observers assume College Park would emerge as the senior partner in any merger.

Perman said those arguments are “very important” and should be heard. But as president of the Baltimore campus, he is perhaps more attuned to the concerns of faculty and deans. Their concerns, he said, are not parochial at all.

The obvious selling point for a merger is collaboration. It’s a buzz word in higher education these days: cooperation across academic disciplines is seen as increasingly essential to securing research funding, generating innovation and delivering a well-rounded education to students.

Another point is institutional strength. College Park is unusual among state flagships for having no affiliated law or medical school. Only five other flagships have neither enterprise on campus, according to research by Miller’s office.

“I don’t understand the benefit of having the separation,” said Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) in a spring interview. “When you put the two together, you really see what a powerhouse we have in Maryland.”

As I reported then:

The Baltimore campus has more than 6,000 students, a $1 billion operating budget and more than $500 million in annual research funding. College Park has more than 35,000 students, a $1.6 billion budget and more than $500 million in research funding. A merger would create the 10th-largest research institution in higher education as measured in grant dollars. Separately, the schools rank 44th and 45th. A merger might also help the flagship school climb in national prestige. U.S. News & World Report ranks College Park as 56th this year among national universities.

Then again, as justifications for a merger, those statistics are all rather superficial. Anyone can figure out the combined strength of the separate schools with a few strokes of the calculator.

Perman has no official position on the merger. So, I asked him, in a telephone interview, to summarize the concerns of his faculty in Baltimore.

Here are five of them.

1. Collaboration already exists. Research routinely reaches across from the medical school in Baltimore to various science departments in College Park. I wrote about one such collaboration back in April: a groundbreaking report that explained how scientists cracked the 2001 anthrax case. (That case has spawned innumerable conspiracy theories and legitimate scientific challenges; but that is another story.)

2. A merger is a largely symbolic move. No merger is going to remove the physical distance separating the two campuses. Those schools and their academic departments would presumably continue to operate under their own department heads in a merged institution. A merger might simply install one additional person, a president, on top of the two organizational structures already in place.

3. Merger could bring bureaucracy. U-Md. researchers spend countless hours writing research proposals. There is a system behind them, and the success of the research operations in both College Park and Baltimore depends partly on the efficiency of each campus. Some researchers “think a larger bureaucracy will slow things down,” Perman said, hindering both institutions in competitive grant-seeking.

4. Collaboration can continue without a merger. “You don’t force collaboration,” Perman said. A better goal is to “create the best platform to promote collaboration.” That can be done with or without a merger, he said, simply by promoting relationships among academic disciplines on the two campuses.

5. There’s no medical school at Berkeley. While it’s true that many state flagships have law or medical schools, some of the nation’s finest institutions lack one or both. Berkeley, arguably the best public university in the nation, has no medical school. Neither does the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Nor the University of Texas in Austin. “The notion that everybody else does it this way, the data that are being offered are not quite accurate,” Perman said.

By  |  05:33 PM ET, 10/24/2011

Categories:  Administration, Public policy, Publics, Rankings | Tags:  University of Maryland

 
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