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Proposed union between U-Md. and Baltimore campuses leaves some worried

The University of Maryland. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Faculty and students at the University of Maryland, Baltimore shared their reservations Friday about a proposed union with the flagship University of Maryland campus in College Park, a plan some fear would change the character and mission of the Charm City institution.

Legislation to combine the campuses is making it’s way through the General Assembly, with a series of revisions, including the removal of a provision that would have made the schools share a president when one of the current presidents left office. The proposed consolidation of leadership rankled some state legislators who worried that the Baltimore school would be robbed of its autonomy in what is being cast as a strategic partnership, not a merger.

People at a town hall meeting at UMB Friday raised similar concerns about the school losing its identity.

“UMB has heart. You feel it everyday. You see it everywhere that you go,”  Patti Hoffmann, a senior manager in the human resources department at UMB, said at the town hall. “And I hope that we don’t lose the heart that we have.”

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Those in favor of the merger say combining the schools would make the university system more prestigious, draw additional grant funding and attract new businesses to Baltimore. College Park is one of the few public flagships without an affiliated medical or law school, both of which the Baltimore campus would provide. The two universities already share resources and programs as a result of a collaboration agreement developed in 2012, an outgrowth of a failed attempt to merge the schools several years ago.

“We believe this bill builds on the success of our collaboration with the University of Maryland, Baltimore and would boost the economy of the state of Maryland,” University of Maryland College Park spokeswoman Crystal Brown said.

During Friday’s town hall, UMB President Jay A. Perman said as a result of the collaboration, joint funding between the two universities has grown to $70 million over the last five years.

“No matter how this works out … what this is really about for the state … is growing and funding our important research, whether its at College Park or UMB,” Perman said. “That’s what the focus needs to be on, it needs to be on growing the number.”

Md. regents reject U-Md., UMB merger

It could prove difficult to get state Republicans on board with the revised bill because of the increased costs. The bill originally asked the state for $10 million a year for a new University of Maryland Center for Economic and Entrepreneurship Development at College Park, $3 million for university research and $1 million to entice businesses to set up shop near the Baltimore campus. But the amended legislation calls for an additional $4 million to two other state schools — Towson University and the University of Maryland Baltimore County — in an effort to gain further support for the proposal.

“Seventy percent of the students in the [university] systems are not students at UMB or College Park,” said Geoffrey Heinzl, president of the University Student Government Association at UMB. “There are a ton of institutions struggling with retention, struggling with graduation rates and a lot of the funding that’s being proposed in this bill, empowering two already great institutions, could be utilized to fulfill the functions of those other institutions.”

Upping the budget for the merger, however, could derail the proposal as Gov. Larry Hogan (R) looks to tighten state spending. There are no apparent cost savings in the proposal, though it does call on the schools to look for potential savings through the integration of back-end operations.

“Cost efficiencies that may be added down the line are an added benefit,” said Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore), who sponsored the legislation, adding that they are in no way a driver of the bill. “There is very strong support for this statewide. The vast majority of people recognize the benefits of this initiative.”

Even if the legislation is successful, the logistics of having two universities with separate operations function as one entity could prove challenging. How would they be ranked? Will certain departments or courses be consolidated? Would the schools apply for research grants as separate entities?

“The devil is in the details,” Sarah Michel, president of the faculty senate at UMB, said at the town hall. “The faculty is worried about how this will affect their faculty positions. We have different rules for tenure in different schools, different compensations, different ways in which our jobs are defined.”

Ferguson said the joint steering committee for both campuses will have to work through the logistics. He pointed out that the university systems in Illinois and Florida have separate campuses with joint research foundations that apply for grants, which could serve as a model for Maryland.