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William T. Wood: Need to see new UMUC

This is a pivotal moment for University of Maryland University College — an opportunity for this historically innovative institution to once again step forward and lead in a time of uncertainty and change.

For nearly 70 years, the University System of Maryland’s open-access institution has provided affordable and valued higher education to adult learners whose responsibilities may include jobs, families and military service.

It was first to answer the call of the Defense Department after World War II to teach U.S. military personnel at bases around the world. UMUC professors were on the ground with combat troops in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. The university pioneered distance education and was among the first to offer online classes.

Today, UMUC remains a proud, progressive university that serves a critical and growing constituency. By embracing innovation, it has grown to become the largest online public university in the nation with approximately 90,000 students studying in Maryland, across the United States and around the world.

Like all of higher education, though, UMUC also faces dramatic challenges today. The combined effects of demographic shifts, military drawdowns, rising costs, growing competition, mature markets and the digital revolution have been felt throughout the institution.

For the past two years, the university saw declines in enrollments and revenues. True to form, it responded decisively and creatively, restructuring its overseas operations and working to improve efficiencies, while launching key academic initiatives designed to improve retention and completion. It unveiled a new scholarship program allowing Maryland community college graduates to earn both their associate’s and bachelor’s degrees for a total cost of $20,000 and also introduced a discounted tuition program for federal employees.

These efforts are already paying off and Fall, 2014 enrollments are up, driven by significant increases in new stateside enrollments. I find this deeply gratifying.

But longer term challenges remain.

To meet them, President Javier Miyares and UMUC Board of Visitors Chair Mark Gerencser brought together a group of outside volunteer leaders to assess the higher education landscape and identify challenges and opportunities for UMUC. I was honored to be a member of this group.

As part of the process, we reviewed UMUC’s existing business model, which supports the university’s innovative and proven education model. We also explored potential alternatives that would help the university meet its challenges and achieve a sustainable pathway for future growth.

Our report is now the subject of a spirited community dialogue, initiated by President Miyares in order to gain input from faculty, staff, students, alumni and other interested persons before he offers his recommendations to USM Chancellor William E. Kirwan and the board of regents later this fall.

From the start of this process, it was understood that UMUC’s future business model was not an end unto itself. Our overarching question was this: How can UMUC best position itself to meet challenges and seize opportunities now and in the future in order to be more nimble, innovative, efficient and effective while maximizing investments in academic quality and innovation?

As a global entity that must be supported by a substantive technological and operational infrastructure, change for UMUC is complex and poses risks. But our Ideation Group believed fully and firmly that doing nothing was not an option.

Like any large institution in a time of technological change, UMUC must transform itself or risk obsolescence.

Armed with a sound academic foundation, the university has been moving forward to sustain and improve quality while innovating in areas that will better help students learn and earn affordable degrees to advance their careers.

UMUC is today playing a leading role in exploring new models of education and new ways to support the success and achievement of its students. To these ends, the university is working arm-in-arm with the Gates, Kresge and Lumina foundations, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Educause and other respected institutions.

President Miyares and UMUC are to be applauded for boldly bringing into public view what is likely to become a national dialogue on the future of higher education in America. In the meantime, by continuing to harness the power of learning science and technology for the benefit of students, employers and the state of Maryland, UMUC indeed has the opportunity to become a university of the future.

William T. “Bill” Wood, founded Wood Law Offices LLC, of Rockville, and has been a practicing lawyer for over 35 years. Wood also serves on the board of trustees of the University of Maryland Baltimore Foundation Inc, the board of directors of the University System of Maryland Foundation Inc. and the board of directors of the Maryland Association of Justice Foundation. 

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