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County residents must work together to boost USM-H

July 30, 2008|By BOB MAGINNIS

The head man of the University System of Maryland came to Hagerstown July 23 to express support for USM's downtown campus and to explain why a recent layoff of five of 18 staff members doesn't mean the facility is in trouble.

Chancellor William E. "Brit" Kirwan's visit came in the wake of a July 2 Herald-Mail story that attributed the layoffs to enrollment that didn't meet projections.

Coming after this year's General Assembly battle to keep a Southern Maryland delegate from snatching much of the local campus budget, the story caused concern for USM officials, who worried that it might send the wrong message about the progress being made here.

Kirwan said that when Frostburg State University's Frederick center was closed, officials hoped that most of those students would come to Hagerstown.

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Some did, but not enough, Kirwan said, and so the staff was "right-sized."

That doesn't mean the campus is not experiencing growth in enrollment, he said, but USM-H had hoped to start with 500, when in fact there were 380 this spring.

That's still a 7 percent enrollment increase from when the campus opened, he said. Also, the campus here began with three USM schools offering 12 undergraduate and graduate degree programs. Now there are six schools and 19 programs, with officials saying more will come after memorandums of understanding are signed.

Given that the dream of having a four-year college here has been discussed for at least the past 30 years, it's time for the center to take off.

How could that be encouraged? A few ideas come to mind:

o Among young people who have been conditioned to think of advertising as the background noise of their lives, word of mouth counts for a great deal.

Somehow USM-H must encourage students at the campus to communicate their successes to friends and acquaintances.

An ad that pictures attractive young people on campus might catch prospective students' attention, but a story told by someone in their circle of friends will carry more weight. Perhaps USM-H officials could do as the old aluminum siding companies did and give a bonus to any student who recommends the campus to someone who actually enrolls.

o USM-H needs to work more closely with Hagerstown Community College, which should be the best source of students for the downtown campus.

USM's Shady Grove center gets 70 percent of its students from community colleges in the Montgomery County area, but only 46 percent of USM-H students come from HCC.

If there's something getting in the way of this potentially valuable partnership, it's time to find out what it is and overcome it.

o Another possibility: Recruit companies to come downtown and provide internships for students, getting some free labor in return.

How about a Hagerstown Police Department lab partially staffed by students in the Investigative Forensics curriculum?

How about a computer-related business utilizing students who are taking Information Systems Management courses?

How about having students who are taking Fire Protection courses work with local fire companies to see how what they're learning relates to - and helps with - actual firefighting?

There are many more possibilities, of course, some of which would depend on how aggressively city and county economic-development professionals can pursue such opportunities.

Other U.S. institutions of higher education have such partnerships, with sponsoring companies such as Microsoft and Oracle, which provide hardware and software for classrooms.

Because such partnerships will take time to develop, local businesses should be encouraged to send one or more of their employees to USM-H now. It would not take a lot of additional enrollees to hit the 500-student mark.

As I said at the outset, the idea of having a four-year college in Washington County is a dream with a long history. But for some reason, nothing here ever seems to be accomplished easily.

After wrenching the center away from Frederick, there was a protracted fight about the best site in this area. Then there were budget battles in the General Assembly, one of which threatened local campus funding.

We have the center. Now it's time for everyone to agree on goals and share them with the community. Then we need to have everyone resolve to fight hard against any effort to put the place out of business by stealing its funding.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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