Donald Fry: USM decision aims for something better than a merger

By Donald C. Fry

The University System of Maryland Board of Regents’ decision on December 9 against merging the University of Maryland Baltimore with the University of Maryland College Park was not simply the end of something. It was the beginning of something better.

The USM regents spent eight months studying the proposed merger concept suddenly advanced last spring by state Senate President Mike Miller during state budget deliberations.

To their credit, regents produced a thoughtful alternative way to accomplish what both merger proponents and opponents wanted in the first place and what, in fact, had already begun before the merger issue was raised – strong, synergistic collaboration.

The state university system’s flagship campus in College Park, and its founding campus in Baltimore have already developed many areas of collaboration between the two major public research universities, noted the regents in their report. “However, science and the needs of the State have evolved to a point that a more formal alliance would benefit the campuses and the state.”

The Board of Regents unanimously found that the disadvantages of a merger between the two institutions “clearly outweigh the advantages.” However, the regents directed USM Chancellor William E. “Brit” Kirwan, UMCP President Wallace Loh, and UMB President Jay Perman to work together to craft “a formal, yet exceedingly agile, collaboration” between their two institutions called “The University of Maryland Strategic Alliance.”

The regents envision an alliance with a small administrative structure that would be “largely free of the bureaucratic, attention- and resource-sapping risks of a formal merger, thereby allowing its faculty and leadership to focus on emerging high-profile, high-impact needs and opportunities.”

Among the characteristics the regents envision for the alliance include:

• Timely joint faculty appointments;
• Enhanced ways for students at the each campus to draw on education opportunities at the other campus;
• Creation of a unified technology transfer and commercialization operation;
• Joint development of bioscience and biomedical academic and research programs at the two campuses;
• Development of a center for biomedical technology, drawing on both campuses’ expertise in nanotechnology and biotechnology.

Kirwan, Loh and Perman have until the end of March to submit specific initial plans for the alliance.

The regents’ proposal to create an alliance that provides all of the benefits of a merger without its risks has prompted initial skepticism from some media proponents of a merger, who argue that it sounds too good to be true and that it would be hard to accomplish without a “single leader” to guide it.

To many, such a critical assessment of trying to apply a well-meaning concept amid the politics and complications of academia would seem valid. But Doctors Kirwan, Loh and Perman are three very accomplished higher education leaders who are, themselves, naturally collaboration-oriented.

Kirwan has been aggressively working to implement a highly-collaborative USM 2020 strategic plan crafted under his leadership and adopted by the Board of Regents in December 2010.

Both Loh and Perman, on their own, were working toward strengthening collaboration and better aligning their two institutions in mutually-beneficial ways before the merger proposal was raised.

Many observers agree that funding will be a key to the success of the new, stronger alliance. As UMCP’s Loh put it: “I have a philosophy that no money equals no mission.”

It’s hard to disagree with that assessment. But the collaboration ball is now in the court of a savvy chancellor and two able and visionary university presidents.

The Greater Baltimore Committee and other business and elected leaders opposed the merger, contending among other things that the primary goals of a merger – enhanced national rankings, broadened research, and academic and entrepreneurial collaboration – could be accomplished without one. Mergers are complicated transactions, many of which fail, and the diverse cultures at these outstanding academic institutions only complicated the prospect of a successful merger.

The three talented leaders who will be working on breathing life into the regents’ visionary concept clearly grasp the high value that a well-structured alliance and substantive, meaningful collaboration would bring to the two universities, the system Baltimore City and College Park, and to the state.

Nothing is easy, but it appears that we’re on the right track.

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