The Chron’s top-notch Medical Center reporter Todd Ackerman reported yesterday that two venerable Houston academic — Baylor College of Medicine and Rice University — are in preliminary discussions regarding a possible merger (the Chron’s excellent Science reporter Eric Berger also comments here).
This makes sense on many levels. Baylor and Rice are located near each other in the Medical Center area, so sharing faculty members between the two institutions would be a snap from a logistics standpoint. Indeed, the attraction of being able to teach and research at both institutions would be a valuable perk for both schools to attract talented teachers and students. Both schools have excellent academic reputations, so it’s a good match from that standpoint, too.
But Ackerman zeroes in on the main problem with the merger. As usual, it involves money:
Rice is the more affluent of the two institutions. As of June 30, its endowment was $4.6 billion. As of Sept. 30, Baylor’s was $954 million. [. . .]
One Rice professor said the key issue from the university’s perspective will be making sure there’s a firewall between Rice’s endowment and Baylor’s.
A "firewall" between the two institutions endowments? Come on, one of the main reasons why the merger makes sense is that Baylor would have access to Rice’s superior capital. The benefit from Rice’s standpoint is the association with a fine medical school that, with access to a better-capitalized endowment, may well propel itself into the best medical school in the country. That is precisely the type of academic excellence that Rice should be pursuing.
Which reminds me of a conversation that I had years ago with a member of the University of Houston Board of Regents. Given the need of Houston and Texas for more Tier 1 research institutions, I observed to this UH regent that I thought it was a good idea for the UH system to merge with the Texas A&M University System.
One one hand, the merger makes sense from UH’s standpoint because it would provide the chronically-undercapitalized UH (endowment about $750 million or so) with access to capital (A&M’s endowment is between $6-7 billion) that is the biggest obstacle in UH’s path to Tier 1 status.
On the other hand, the merger makes sense from A&M’s standpoint because UH would provide A&M with the urban presence that it has always lacked and UH’s central campus in Houston that A&M could use as a carrot for attracting better teachers and students. Moreover, A&M for years has desired a law school and UH would deliver a very good one.
So, I asked the UH regent, such a merger makes sense, doesn’t it?
The UH regent proceeded to give me a half-dozen reasons why the proposed merger would never work, most of which were tied to the fact that he would no longer be a member of an independent university system board if such a merger were consummated.
That is precisely the attitude that has placed Texas behind states such as California and New York in the development of Tier 1 research institutions and all the benefits that such universities provide to the state and its communities. Here’s hoping that similar attitudes don’t scuttle what appears to be a very good idea for Rice, Baylor and Houston.