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Laslo Boyd: A strategic first step toward an alliance

Having wriggled out of Senate President Mike Miller’s bear hug of a merger proposal, the University System of Maryland announced with great fanfare last week a strategic alliance between the University of Maryland, Baltimore and the University of Maryland, College Park.

The announcement came after months of study from which the Board of Regents concluded that while there were all sorts of benefits that would result from greater collaboration between the two major research campuses, many of those results could be achieved by a strategic alliance without the complications and costs that would be entailed in a merger.

If the promises of last week’s decision can in fact be fulfilled, the initial turmoil provoked by Miller’s “proposal” will turn out to have been worth the effort.

Miller seemed primarily interested in finding a shortcut to enhanced national rankings for the state’s flagship campus, but, in the process, he uncovered an important kernel of truth: Both campuses have strengths that are complementary and can be built upon by working together.

Nothing as quick as immediate higher national ranking will result from the strategic alliance, but the announcement last week did identify a number of areas with considerable promise.

One is in the field of public health, where both UMB and UMCP have accredited master’s programs. The intent is to seek accreditation of a joint degree program that builds upon the existing areas of expertise at each campus and also fosters increased research collaboration between the faculties.

Technology transfer

A second focus is on enhancing technology transfer efforts at both campuses. This is not a new topic and has been the subject of numerous announcements and initiatives over the past two decades. Spin-off companies resulting from discoveries made at research universities have been key drivers of the economy in a number of regions of the country. Think Silicon Valley in California, the Research Triangle in North Carolina, or the Route 128 corridor in Massachusetts.

Accelerating Maryland’s technology transfer portfolio would be a major boost for the state’s economy and is, in fact, essential to the state’s ability to be competitive in the global economy. Moving beyond previous talk on the subject will require simplifying state and university procedures, providing expertise in areas such as patent law, and creating an environment that is much more supportive of entrepreneurial activities.

When I asked UMB President Jay Perman why this current round of technology transfer aspirations was different from earlier ones, his response was that you now have two presidents (he and UMCP President Wallace Loh) who are committed to the goal. That should go a long way and could be the most significant outcome from the strategic alliance.

Another specific initiative described last week is increased collaboration and an expanded presence by both campuses at Shady Grove in Montgomery County. There are already researchers from both UMB and UMCP at the Institute for Biotechnology and Bioscience Research, but that program has no connection to the current education offerings at Shady Grove.

With the director of the institute about to retire, the plan is to hire a dean to oversee a broader array of research and educational efforts there. As with a number of the pieces of the strategic alliance, the actual outcomes will depend on how plans are implemented, whether the necessary resources can be acquired, and whether the initial enthusiasm is maintained.

Somewhat lost in the coverage of the announcement about Shady Grove is the UMB plan to explore developing a medical campus at that location. Whether that ends up being an opportunity for medical students to spend their third and fourth years there or whether a full four-year program is offered is not likely to be settled for some time.

Close working relationships

When Perman described the process by which the strategic alliance agreement was worked out, he emphasized the close working relationships that had developed between senior leaders from both campuses. He specifically included getting to know and work with Loh as one of the benefits of the process.

Those relationships may be even more important that any of the specific initiatives that were announced last week. If the goal is to achieve greater collaboration, particularly in cutting-edge research fields, that is most likely to develop as faculty from the two campuses get to know each other better and to work on specific areas of interest.

Perman mentioned bioinformatics — the use of sophisticated computer technology to analyze large volumes of data in the fields of biology and medicine — as a field in which both UMB and UMCP have substantial expertise and in which there is enormous national interest.

That’s a great example, but there are undoubtedly others that no one has thought of yet.

Will we look back on the announcement about the strategic alliance as a pivotal moment in the history of higher education in Maryland as well is in the state’s global competitiveness? It’s way too early to know because all of the real work still remains to be done. Still, it certainly looks like an important step in the right direction.

Laslo Boyd writes a monthly column for The Daily Record. His experience in public policy includes government, higher education and consulting. His email address is lvboyd@gmail.com.