COLLEGE PARK, Md. - In early December, just as Gov. Christie's task force was putting the final touches on his controversial plan to overhaul New Jersey's public university system - including a merger of Rutgers-Camden and Rowan University - a similar conversation was concluding 160 miles south on I-95.
For six months, the University of Maryland's governing board of regents had examined merging its Baltimore school into its sprawling redbrick campus at College Park. But with opposition fierce from the faculty in Baltimore and the city's mayor fighting the proposal, the board had heard enough.
In a report released Dec. 9, it opted against an outright merger in favor of expanding joint degree programs and research between the two schools, writing: "To fully succeed, a merger must have the support of the leadership, faculty, staff, and students at both institutions."
On state university campuses across the country, the concept of consolidating campuses and academic assets has gained increasing traction in recent years as state support for higher education declines, and there's a growing sense that tuition increases are becoming politically untenable at public universities.
In Georgia, officials are preparing to consolidate eight of the state's 35 public universities and colleges. In Colorado, a state medical school - a coveted asset for research universities - was recently merged into the University of Colorado-Denver.
"What's happening in New Jersey is pretty consistent with what's been going on around the various states," said Christopher Loss, a professor of public policy and higher education at Vanderbilt University. "The politics is difficult. There have been a lot of calls for greater efficiency. . . . But every representative at every level of government has constituents who go to college, as well as colleges in their districts with very powerful lobbying arms."
In Maryland, the merging of the two schools, which despite sharing a name are independent of each other, was proposed by veteran State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. as a means to boost the university's rankings and attract more research dollars.
The thinking - similar to the tone taken by Christie - was that while neither the College Park nor the Baltimore campus is in the same league as top-tier public universities such as Michigan or California-Berkeley, if you put them together, maybe they would be. All of their assets would be housed under one banner, making the campuses more attractive to prospective faculty and students.
As many officials pointed out, if you combined their respective $500 million a year in external research funding, they would be on par with nearby Johns Hopkins University, one of the country's preeminent research institutions.
"For people who say rankings don't matter, it does. Faculty, students, they care about status," said Wallace D. Loh, president of the University of Maryland-College Park. "But the focus on a merger was insignificant. It's about bringing different disciplines together. That's where the future is. That's where innovation is going to come."
But as in New Jersey, the question of whether to merge quickly bogged down in institutional and regional politics.
College Park educates 35,000 graduate and undergraduate students a year on an idyllic campus of sprawling quadrangles and Colonial architecture outside Washington. It was quickly painted as an aggressor looking to usurp the assets of the University of Maryland-Baltimore, an inner-city campus that has no undergraduate students but boasts a medical school, teaching hospital, and law school.
Joseph Kao, a physiology professor at Baltimore, said there was a consensus that joint research between the two campuses was a positive, but he said there was resistance among many of his colleagues to a merger.
"Every time I go to College Park, I find interesting people I could work with, but a true collaboration doesn't happen because presidents say it happens," he said in his Baltimore office last week. "Every campus is like an independent society with its own culture and history."
Federal research funding to universities totals hundreds of billions of dollars a year, driving most scientific breakthroughs in this country and serving as major economic drivers in many regions.
Competition is steep and growing now as universities are moving beyond pure research toward commercial applications of their work, which they believe have the potential for spectacular payoffs.
A much-talked-about example of the modern era is Stanford University, where the founders of Google were studying when they worked out the algorithms that would become the foundation of their Internet search engine. Google bought the licensing rights from Stanford with company stock, which the university sold in 2005 for $336 million.
"It's only a rare occasion that a patent really provides such an enormous sum," said Barry Toiv, a spokesman for the Association of American Universities. Still, he added, "there's so much research going on, it's effectively impossible for the private sector to keep track of it all, so it's something the universities are focusing on doing themselves."
But doing so often involves changing how a university has historically operated, which can have a political cost.
In Baltimore, the University of Maryland provides thousands of jobs and has partnered with the city on a wave of redevelopment projects downtown - loft apartments and artisanal-bread shops are replacing check-cashing operations and abandoned buildings.
The prospect of officials in College Park dictating how the Baltimore campus spends its money reignited old regional tensions between Baltimore and the Washington area.
"Downtown [Baltimore] needs to have local leadership committed to its campus and the neighborhood around it. When I need to meet with the [university president], he is there," Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, testified in opposing the merger at a hearing in October.
Whether New Jersey's plans for merger and consolidation await a similar fate to Maryland's remains to be seen.
Closed-door negotiations involving university and political leaders continue as Christie works to keep himself from being yet another New Jersey governor who couldn't get a deal on higher education.
Meanwhile, whether this recent trend of mergers and asset shifting will prove successful remains to be seen, Loss said.
"These sorts of consolidations often have ripple effects, and there are unintended consequences," he said. "In the 1960s, California merged all its schools, which was seen as very cutting-edge, and now that system is all but bankrupt. The recipe is not at all clear in what needs to be done."
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