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The Southern Maryland Higher Education Center Board of Governors trustees unanimously agreed last week, though with some trepidation, to begin discussions about merging with the University System of Maryland.

A merger would likely involve the state’s public university taking over some or all of a new academic building planned for the higher education campus in California.

The possibility of a merger has “been on the table” for two years now as the board of governors, other agencies and politicians weighed in, Joe Anderson, chair of the higher education center’s board of governors, said.

Advocates of the merger say it could lead to university research facilities that may help St. Mary’s County diversify its economy so it is not so reliant on federal funding related to Patuxent River Naval Air Station.

“We all understand this has been essentially on hold while various groups in the community come to terms on how this will move forward,” Anderson said at a Sept. 26 meeting of the higher education center’s governors.

The passage of resolutions at that meeting authorize the center to enter into discussions with the University System of Maryland Board of Regents to convey land for the new building and establish a transition plan for a possible merger.

“These two resolutions are what is required to get us at the table with the University System of Maryland,” Anderson said.

The board of governors has not had any official meetings with University System of Maryland chancellor or other leaders, said Mel Powell, executive director of the Southern Maryland Higher Education Center.

He said he is optimistic that a meeting could occur in the next month.

Del. John Bohanan (D-St. Mary’s) was a key player in persuading USM to establish a stronger presence in Southern Maryland, Anderson said.

Bohanan said USM Chancellor William Kirwan sent him an email last weekend saying he was ready and excited to move forward.

“We are deeply appreciative of this resolution and ready to roll up our sleeves and go to work,” Kirwan wrote, adding that he will put together a team to begin working on an memorandum of understanding with the higher education center.

Anderson said he would like to see an agreement outlining the specifics of how a merger might occur finished up before next year’s Maryland General Assembly session end in April.

Roland “Mike” Colina Sr., a member of the higher education center’s board, said the center wants to continue its current business model. “[We] do not want to enter into an agreement that would prohibit us from continuing that business model, which has been very successful,” he said.

The higher education center currently hosts degree programs from about a dozen colleges and universities, both public and private. The center’s board can approve a new course of study, which is then forwarded to the state’s higher education center.

Maryland’s public university system has the right of first refusal to offer the course through one of its colleges.

“We have an understanding from our delegate that this will be in the language,” Colina said.

“This is a community issue,” and anyone in Southern Maryland has a right to weigh in on the possible merger, Anderson said.

While Anderson said he is supportive of a merger with USM, he added, “Entering into discussions is not the same as doing it ... We do hold cards in this process.”

The board of governors held a special meeting on Aug. 21 to discuss the center’s “alternative futures,” including a potential new relationship with USM.

The board then talked about maintaining ownership of the land and offering a portion of it for USM to lease.

That is not a realistic outcome, Anderson said, and was not included in the resolutions passed last week.

Retired Capt. Glen Ives, a former commanding officer of Pax River, said that a greater presence for USM in Southern Maryland could help win a Federal Aviation Administration designation as a site for testing of autonomous aircraft for civilian use. Maryland, Virginia and New Jersey announced last week that they will work together in a bid to win that designation.

“We don’t need the test site designation to move forward,” Ives said. However, the designation, which should be determined by the end of the year, would certainly boost the presence of a technology business incubator as well as a research lab in St. Mary’s.

Anderson urged the other trustees to go forward with the discussions in good faith. “They’re going to come down here,” he said of USM, “and they’re going to want to be successful.”

Ives agreed, saying that when he was commanding officer at Pax River he helped negotiate a program that linked the base with both the College of Southern Maryland and USM to offer local residents a path to earn engineering degrees. Ives said the university system was accommodating and worked well with the Navy and the community college.

Some of the members of the board of governors are approaching the merger cautiously, fearing the higher education center could lose some or all of its independence.

“We don’t want to get lost in a big system,” Elfreda Mathis said, urging her fellow board members to keep in mind the center’s original mission and business model, which allows multiple public and private institutions to offer classes.

Bob Randall, a former chair of the higher education center’s board, meeting spoke vehemently against any potential merger at last week’s meeting.

“It is a bad idea. It’s a terrible idea,” Randall said. “It wouldn’t be a merger. You’d be consumed.”

He said he has concerns about losing the independence afforded to the board of governors as well as control over what goes into what will be the third building at the center, including concerns about a business incubator.

“Don’t lose sight of the fact that this is a higher education center,” Randall said.

“Over the years I’ve been here, University of Maryland has kind of begrudgingly been pulled to the table” to offer programs at the higher education center, Randall said.

Members of the board of governors noted that there would likely remain some sort of local advisory board, even after a merger. Powell, the center’s director, dismissed such advisory boards, calling them “social organizations” that are made up of politicians.

Powell said in an interview Monday he feels comfortable with the resolutions and is willing to go forward with discussions about a merger, as long as some conditions are met.

One point of contention is that board of governors developed a detailed proposal outlining the need and uses of the third building, and even after state approvals of the local plan, USM was given state money to design the building on its own.

Last spring the state legislature essentially deauthorized $935,000 that had been allotted for the design of the new building at the higher education center, but added $1.5 million to the USM’s capital budget.

The third academic building will likely have two components in addition to classrooms — a business incubator and an innovation center for autonomous systems development.

It is also unclear whether faculty, students or businesses would use the research lab, Powell said.

It is important that the center continue as a type of community resource where groups can reserve meeting space, Powell and members of the board of governors said.

The center’s current model relies on the income from the room rentals.

“This may be viewed as a step in the evolution of higher education in Southern Maryland,” Anderson said.

jyeatman@somdnews.com