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More disagreement over proposed UM merger

COLLEGE PARK — Speakers at a public hearing on the proposed merger of two University System of Maryland institutions disagreed over the plan’s implications Friday, with some touting its advantages while others worried aloud about a larger bureaucracy.

Many speakers from the Washington, D.C., suburbs and the University of Maryland, College Park, faculty, including former UMCP President C.D. Mote, voiced support for the proposed integration of UMCP and the University of Maryland, Baltimore, into a single institution.

Representatives of UMB and the Baltimore business community, however, were unenthusiastic.

“Decisions today need to be made quickly … and they need to be made locally,” said J. Kirby Fowler Jr., president of Downtown Partnership of Baltimore Inc.

Fowler said a merger could lead to the Baltimore faculty and institutions being “neglected.” He suggested a single bureaucracy could focus more on the larger College Park campus, nearly 40 miles away, at Baltimore’s expense.

“The notion of a full-out merger should be off the table,” Fowler said. “There are always winners and losers in a merger.”

Mote pointed to examples from his 12-year tenure, from 1998 to 2010, of “lost opportunities” that saw the schools compete for grants and spend money on similar facilities instead of working together toward common goals.

“If it had been a merged university at the time … the state and its people would have been much better off,” Mote said.

A successful merger would negate the atmosphere of “win-lose” competition between the two schools, replacing it with “win-win” collaboration, Mote said.

Two state legislators — Sen. Richard Madaleno, D-Montgomery, and Del. Dereck E. Davis, D-Prince George’s — testified in favor of the merger as well.

“Just because it’s difficult does not mean we should not undertake it,” said Davis, picking up on a common theme of speakers on all sides of the issue in noting obstacles of location, culture and competition complicating the proposed merger. “Don’t get caught up in the naysayers, and those who are looking out for self-interests or parochial interests.”

Davis said the merger would boost a combined institution into the upper echelon of schools nationwide, vaulting from 39th and 41st respectively in research expenditures, as of 2008, to seventh, among other increases. This increased prestige would attract investment and appeal to prospective students, he said, an argument repeated by several other pro-merger speakers.

University of Maryland Baltimore Foundation Inc. board member William T. Wood echoed many of Fowler’s concerns, though he said “voluntary” collaboration between students and faculty members at the schools should be encouraged.

According to Wood, UMB and UMCP administrators already face major challenges. He said a merger would only add to their complexity.

“It’s difficult to envision how one president can manage a giant merged institution,” Wood said, referring to the proposed combined school.

Wood was dismissive of a proposal to retain two separate presidents for the campuses. Similar to Fowler, he said one president would inevitably end up dominating.

The one area on which all speakers agreed was the need for greater collaboration between UMB and UMCP, even though they disputed its extent.

“Even if just one or two collaborations come out of this … it will have been worth it,” said David Weber, professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, which is in Baltimore.

The well-attended hearing, held in the atrium of the Adele H. Stamp Student Union on the UMCP campus, was the second of two to be held on the merger proposal. The first was held Oct. 21 at the UMB campus.

The oral testimony presented at both hearings, as well as submitted written testimony, will be considered by the USM Board of Regents in its decision.