To the Editor:

Among the many factors that drove my decision to return to Maryland as chancellor of the University System of Maryland (USM), the tremendous value our state places on public higher education was paramount. Elected officials in Annapolis have made support for the USM a consistent priority.  Business leaders across the state have established partnerships with USM institutions to promote workforce development and drive economic activity. Our colleagues in the K-12 sector have significant alliances with the USM to make higher education possible for more of our young people. Community activists work hand-in-hand with the USM to improve quality of life across the state. And the public at large has come to expect—even to demand—an active and engaged university system.

These beliefs were confirmed earlier this fall as I embarked upon a “listening tour” across Maryland.  Over the course of four days, several of my colleagues and I crisscrossed the state of Maryland, traveling 900 miles. I held dozens of meetings, speaking directly with business leaders, educators, farmers, entrepreneurs, government officials, advocates, and others. I wanted to talk about their perspectives as to the USM’s strengths, challenges, and opportunities. I asked directly: “What do you need?” “What can we do?” “What is our bigger role?” “What is missing?” The insight I gained will help direct my actions as chancellor going forward, as I come to the end of this first academic semester.

In Southern Maryland, I had some particularly enlightening conversations with local officials, as well as business leaders, about how the USM can both promote and propel the region’s growing R&D economy. There was strong consensus that the region needed access to more engineers—and engineering programs—to support this growth. My tour of Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant with Exelon Chairman Mayo Shattuck underscored this fact, with an emphasis on the need for electrical engineers as well as expanding partnerships with the USM to provide access to ongoing employee training.   

Much of our conversation revolved around ways in which the USM can expand its presence at the Southern Maryland Higher Education Center (SMHEC). With the funding provided by the state, St. Mary’s County, and the USM, the initial planning and design are moving forward for the USM Southern Maryland Academic and Research Center—popularly known as Building 3—at the SMHEC campus. The USM already has a strong presence at SMHEC, with several institutions offering a wide array of programs. Building 3 has the potential to take our partnership to a much higher level. It will be a modern education and research facility, featuring state-of-the-art classrooms and cutting-edge research labs.  Combined with assets like the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, and an expanding private sector, the USM enhanced role at the SMHEC campus can help Southern Maryland soar even higher.

I thank the men and women of Southern Maryland who took the time to meet with me, share their thoughts, and help me better understand the future envisioned for the region. Virtually everyone I spoke with expressed admiration for the USM and a desire to see our impact intensified going forward.

Of course, the USM’s ability to meet the specific needs of Southern Maryland, as well as broader statewide needs, will largely be dictated by our funding level.  With state support accounting for approximately 25 percent of the USM’s budget, we will not be able to meet these expectations without a firm commitment from our partners in Annapolis. The USM’s commitment is strong, but we need funding to build the capacity to meet expectations.

As I traveled across this great state and spoke with our fellow citizens—business leaders, community leaders, educators, entrepreneurs, local officials, and others—time and again it was made clear to me that Maryland wouldn’t be the state it is today without the USM. More importantly, Maryland will never be the state it wants to be without the USM.  We are an investment in the future.

 Robert L. Caret, Chancellor of the University System of Maryland