Proposal to merge U-Md. and Baltimore campus stirs rivalry

Correction: Earlier versions of this article about a proposed merger of two University of Maryland campuses incorrectly said that Princeton University is the Ivy League school closest to Baltimore. The University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, is closer. This version has been corrected.

April 3, 2011

A legislative proposal to merge the flagship University of Maryland campus in College Park with the historic University of Maryland, Baltimore has stirred an ancient rivalry between Baltimore and suburban Washington as to which is the rightful epicenter of higher education in the state.

The Maryland Senate has adopted a budget amendment by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) that asks the board of regents of the state university system to study the potential benefits of a merger and to deliver findings and a timetable by year’s end.

A merger might not mean much in the daily lives of students at either campus. But it would effectively end the era of independent public universities in Baltimore and College Park — with College Park potentially cast as the senior partner.

Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) supports a merger. The presidents of the two institutions have remained neutral, as has university system Chancellor William E. Kirwan.

College Park is unusual for a flagship campus because it has no affiliated law or medical school. The Baltimore campus has both but few undergraduates. The two campuses were one university for much of the previous century. And the trend in higher education is toward more — not less — collaboration across academic disciplines. Only five other flagship state universities have neither law nor medical schools, according to research by Miller’s office.

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

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.

But powerful political and historical forces shaped the unusual geography of Maryland’s public university system. The story of the two campuses is entwined with the ascent of suburban Washington, the waning influence of Baltimore and the rising gravitational pull of an upstart flagship.

“You have to deal with the old-time prejudices,” Miller said in an interview, “and they’re mostly in Baltimore.”

The University of Maryland began in Baltimore with the founding of the nation’s first public medical school in 1807. Davidge Hall, built in 1812, is the oldest American medical-education building in continuous use. Edgar Allan Poe is buried on the campus of the School of Law, founded in 1816.

The origins of College Park are comparatively humble. The campus began in 1856 as the Maryland Agricultural College with a few dozen students. It went bankrupt during the Civil War and was briefly repurposed as a boys preparatory school. Fire destroyed most of the campus in 1912. Academic credibility arguably arrived only in 1920 with the merger of the College Park and Baltimore campuses to form the University of Maryland.

But they separated in 1970. And still more years would pass before the College Park campus acquired first-rank stature among the nation’s public universities.

By long tradition, the elite of Baltimore would send their children to private colleges, including Johns Hopkins and Princeton.

But by the 1980s, political weight had shifted to the suburbs of Washington — and Maryland was one of the few states still lacking a distinct public flagship university. College Park gained that title in 1988. In the 1990s, when Kirwan was president, the school finally shed its reputation as a safety school and joined the ranks of top public universities.

Baltimore would stand to lose still more political currency if the institutions were merged, particularly under a president based in College Park.

“They may well feel a sense of loss if this happened,” Kirwan said. “Right now, they have a corporate CEO, so to speak, in Baltimore, and if there is a merged institution, I think it is likely the president would be forced to sit in College Park.”

A combined institution might also overshadow another major doctoral university, the ascendant University of Maryland Baltimore County. Although not a flagship, UMBC could make its own case for merger with the professional campus, if only for relative proximity.

Baltimore campus President Jay A. Perman declined to comment beyond a written statement. In it, he stressed the distinct identities of the two institutions, citing part of his inauguration speech: “We should not, and cannot, ignore meaningful, real differences as people, as professions, as distinct institutions. In my view, we should celebrate and leverage uniqueness.”

Boosters of the Baltimore campus fear that a merger might lead to eventual dismantlement. There has been talk, for instance, of moving the law school to College Park. The Baltimore campus is credited with revitalizing a broad swath of downtown.

“We are very wary of anything that could change the impact of UMB on Baltimore,” said Gene Bracken, spokesman for the Greater Baltimore Committee, a group of business and civic leaders.

College Park President Wallace Loh remains officially neutral. But he said in an interview, “The direction of all scholarship and education is toward crossing boundaries — geographical boundaries, academic boundaries.”

A merged university might more easily stage research involving doctors and biologists or political scientists and lawyers. Then again, such collaboration already exists between the two schools.

There is some agreement, at least, on the merits of asking the university system’s governing board to study the pros and cons of a merger. Miller’s budget amendment awaits action in the House of Delegates.

“Let’s do a study. Let’s let everybody make their arguments. Let’s get everything on the table,” said Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George’s), who represents College Park.

Staff writer Ann Marimow contributed to this report.

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