MD Delegates Hear Concerns About UMB-UMCP Partnership

March 23, 2016    |  

The debate over Senate Bill 1052, the University of Maryland Strategic Partnership Act of 2016, intensified Tuesday, as dozens of witnesses testified before a House of Delegates committee in Annapolis.

The original bill was amended by the Senate in a few significant ways before it was passed to the House last week. The bill now maintains a president for each campus and omits a provision allowing the University System of Maryland (USM) Board of Regents to name just one president for both in the event that the president of either campus leaves office.

The amended bill also removes an effort to combine personnel systems, grants the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) and University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP) equal privileges to present the governor with budget priorities, and extends funding for a technology commercialization center to be located in Baltimore.

One of SB 1052’s most ardent supporters, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (Prince George’s and Calvert), told delegates the bill is important for the entire state, enabling greater research and educational collaboration, and helping revitalize Baltimore’s downtown area.

“I lived in Baltimore for three years. Baltimore was a bustling town. I got to see Greektown. I got to see Little Italy. I got to see historic Baltimore. I got to see a downtown that was alive and well and I loved it,” he said, adding with a laugh, “I got to The Block on West Baltimore Street a couple of times even.” Miller continued, lamenting that “those place are dead now. They're dead. Downtown is dead. But we need to bring the 'millennials' to downtown and we can do that.”

Much of the testimony that followed concerned the impact a new UMB-UMCP partnership might have on the other 10 USM universities and the persisting perception that the bill would create a merger of the two institutions.

“I'm strongly supportive of legislation that strengthens the partnership,” UMB President Jay A. Perman, MD, told the House Appropriations Committee, cautioning that “If there’s confusion regarding whether this is a merger, and there can be no question that there is confusion, then there’ll be unnecessary impact on the critical work I think of partnering two very different cultures.”

Since 2012, UMB and UMCP have collaborated in joint research and educational programs under the aegis of University of Maryland: MPowering the State (MPower). Following a 2011 proposal to merge the two universities, the USM Board of Regents conducted a study to find the most effective means to partner the two institutions, concluding that a structured partnership rather than a merger would produce the greatest results with the least cost and disruption.

At Tuesday’s hearing there was virtual unanimity that MPower has been a success, generating millions of dollars in joint research grants, spawning new tech businesses, commercializing scientific discoveries, and enabling new educational programs.

School of Nursing Dean Jane M. Kirschling and Carey School of Law Dean Donald B. Tobin prepare to testify to the House Appropriations Committee.

School of Nursing Dean Jane M. Kirschling and Carey School of Law Dean Donald B. Tobin prepare to testify to the House Appropriations Committee.

“As part of MPower we're active participants in the Justice and Legal Thought scholars program [at UMCP] which now has been a huge success,” said Donald B. Tobin, JD, dean of the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. “We also participate in a 3/3 program so that now a College Park student can participate in three years at the undergraduate school and three years at the law school, so students can graduate in six years.”

University of Maryland School of Nursing Dean Jane M. Kirschling, PhD, RN, FAAN, described joint programs that recruit nursing students for her school’s baccalaureate program, and reserve seats for College Park students. And University of Maryland School of Medicine Dean E. Albert Reece, MD, PhD, MBA, described many successful joint degree and joint research programs conducted in conjunction with UMCP.

Among the strongest testimony in support of MPower came from University of Maryland School of Dentistry professor Robert Ernst, PhD, who appeared to have taken advantage of nearly every aspect of the alliance. “I have been the recipient of one of the seed grants with somebody at College Park. I have received a TEDCO [Maryland Technology Development Corporation] M-I-I [Maryland Innovation Initiative grant]. I have also been lucky enough to receive one of the MedImmune grants that came out of the whole UM system. And I’m also one of the people who started a new company out of the OTT [Office of Technology Transfer] department of the University of Maryland, Baltimore late last year. So, MPower works,” Ernst assured the committee.

UMCP President Wallace Loh, PhD, JD, MA, echoed praise for MPower. “MPower for the last four years has been incredibly successful in terms of education, research, in terms of tech commercialization, creating new companies. But you should know, it's been successful because of the relationship between Jay and me and our staffs,” he said, urging that the relationship should be made permanent. “Once you codify it so it continues beyond our lifetimes, in these jobs, my hope is that one plus one can someday equals five or six.”

The abundance of support for the current form of partnership between the two universities prompted some, like USM Regent James T. Brady, to suggest the legislature should stick with MPower and reject the “Strategic Partnership.”

“We have an MPower project that has been wildly successful. And I haven’t heard anyone say anything different. Why would our focus not be on making that as good as it can be without creating this incredibly complex morass-filled bill that just complicates everything immensely?” Brady added, “Here we have two institutions which are as culturally divergent as you could possibly imagine.  Putting these together in any way is a very difficult task, if not impossible. And I think would have deleterious potential impact on the entire system.”

UMB Faculty Senate President Sarah Michel, PhD, agreed, telling delegates that her colleagues believe “an investment aimed at expanding MPowering the State, rather than a merger, would be a better allocation of state resources.”

How higher education resources would be allocated following the creation of a greater and more formalized UMB-UMCP partnership was on the minds of many who testified in the three-hour hearing. USM Chancellor Robert L. Caret, PhD, agreed that balancing needs and priorities among the various USM institutions would be a challenge. “If you always make one institution the most important, then the others are going to eventually deteriorate in terms of funding or the ability to do what they need to do or in terms of facilities,” he said.

Caret testified that “a number of important concerns remain and will require attention before USM’s support can move from conceptual to concrete.”  And he emphasized that funding guidelines ought to be included in the bill, as well as a greater focus on educational goals. “The bill focuses heavily on economic development and research. We would also like it to focus on education, access, and student completion,” he said.

Many supporters of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, including members of the committee, also expressed concerns. Some argued that UMBC should receive greater funding, while others suggested UMBC should join UMB and UMCP in the new strategic partnership.

“It seems to me it is a fairly major research institution that’s being left out of this discussion,” said Del. Marc Korman (Montgomery).

Del. Mark Chang (Anne Arundel) agreed. “I just feel like UMBC is being left out of this. UMBC has done what most colleges haven’t done in 100 years and they’ve only been around for 50. “

Sen. Miller’s response that the bill would be a “win-win for everybody, including UMBC” failed to satisfy all concerns.

Virletta C. Bryant, PhD, a professor at Coppin State University and chair of the Council of University System Faculty (CUSF), expressed serious concerns about the bill. “CUSF is concerned that the unintended consequences associated with this legislation may serve as a Trojan horse, ultimately undermining the overall quality of higher education in the state of Maryland,” she testified. “The comprehensive members of the current USM [particularly Coppin State University, Bowie State University, University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Frostburg State University, Towson University, University of Baltimore, and Salisbury University] could experience great harm from this action.”

Late in the afternoon, UMCP student Colin Byrd enlivened the proceedings and enlightened those present with a lesson in University of Maryland history. UMB and UMCP were one institution, he said, until 1970 when the size of the organization made administration unwieldy and ineffective. The legislature’s decision to split the two nearly 50 years ago gave evidence, he told the committee, that bigger is not necessarily better.

“This idea that a combined university means better faculty and students is hogwash,” Byrd said. Hearkening back to former chancellor Donald N. Langenberg’s testimony that the current USM structure works well, and that “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Byrd added, “If it was broke before and you fixed it, don’t break it again.”

The full House Appropriations Committee hearing may be viewed online. Please scroll to the 10-minute mark for the start of the hearing.