HOW COMMUNITY LEADERS IMPLEMENTED A VISION FOR THE CREATION OF A CENTER FOR GRADUATE EDUCATION IN SOUTHERN MARYLAND
BY Mel D. Powell, Ph.D., Executive Director, Southern Maryland Higher Education Center
Since 1995 Southern Maryland’s citizens have been able to enjoy and benefit from the availability of a comprehensive array almost 100 graduate and upper division academic programs in professional fields responsive to the Region’s workforce needs.
The credit for this unprecedented higher education opportunity belongs to the actions in the early nineties of a group of visionary and futuristic local leaders in the Region’s business community, elected county officials from all three counties, and state delegates and senators representing the region. These visionaries understood the historical relationship between the presence in a community of knowledge-based graduate technology education and successful economic growth, and had the fortitude and resilience to pursue a dream despite the advice and discouragement of the State’s higher education’s establishment that sought to dismiss and disparage their hopes and aspirations.
Over several years of planning and lobbying, these local leaders actively engaged in a campaign of information directed to the political leadership in the State’s capital. The effort convinced Governor Donald Schaeffer to facilitate a State grant to construct the Center’s first 14-classroom facility, a 22,000 square foot building constructed on a 25-acre campus donated for the purpose by Joseph Waldschmitt, developer of the Wildewood Technology Park located in the heart of Southern Maryland.
What the local visionaries who campaigned for the creation of the Center realized in the early 1990’s was that the new thrust of technology knowledge being generated by the expanding Patuxent River Naval Air Base would serve as the catalyst for a significant expansion of the Region’s economic wealth. The creation of a graduate education institution focusing on professional fields of study would thus support a large-scale attempt to expand the social and physical infrastructure of the region that would in turn provide a new and expanded economic base. Their vision has become a reality.
The Center was legally created as a State higher education entity by legislation in 1994, and the completed classroom building opened its doors for academic instruction in the fall 1995 semester. Reflecting the Center’s success in recruiting academic programs, a second 21-classroom building was authorized and constructed by the State, and opened for classes in January 2003.
Today, the Center serves a population of over 300,000 in the Region, including 22,000 employees at the Patuxent River Naval Air Base and 8,000 employees in over 200 defense firms, as well as 7,000 public school teachers and administrators and numerous business, social welfare and health care professionals.
Currently, 97 academic programs are offered at the Center by 14 universities and colleges, including 52 master’s degrees, six doctorates, and 15 bachelor completion programs. An additional 13 graduate certificates, one under graduate degree education certificate program and 8 graduate education certification programs and are also offered.
Included in SMHEC’s growing inventory of academic programs are 39 degrees in engineering and technology, from doctorates to bachelor completion programs. Also available are 44 graduate education programs including a doctorate, as well as academic programs in business administration, management, social services, community and clinical counseling, information assurance, executive leadership, and nursing.
During the 2010-2011 school year, 294 classes were offered at SMHEC, with 3,412 class enrollments. During the 16-year period of SMHEC’s existence, almost 33,000 class enrollments have been taken by over 26,000 individuals.
As an independent state higher education entity, SMHEC has a Board of Governors appointed by the Governor of Maryland. Thirteen individuals serve four-year terms, representing the three counties in the region.
In addition to the incentives for personal professional growth now available with the presence in the Region of graduate professional programs, the need to travel 200-mile round trips to attend evening classes after a day of work has been eliminated. During the 16 years of SMHEC’s existence, the Region’s citizens have not had to make 490,725 round-trips to far off campuses, and have not had to drive 98 million miles to attend the classes now available at SMHEC.
With five meeting rooms seating 50 to 450, and 30 high tech seminar rooms that can be also be utilized as either breakout rooms for conferences or individual training rooms, four computer laboratories, a complete mechanical engineering laboratory, SMHEC has also become a venue for training and conference programs and special events such as the Annual Showcase for the St. Mary’s County Chamber of Commerce. The nearby Naval Air Station at Patuxent River has held thousands of training programs and conferences at SMHEC drawing a national audience.
In FY 2011, SMHEC hosted 259 training and conference programs serving 16,000 individuals over 24,000 person-days of training, of which the majority were held by the Patuxent River Naval Air Station. An additional 463 meetings were held by governmental and non-profit organization, serving over 12,000 citizens in public and community meetings.
Winston Churchill once postulated that “It is a mistake to look too far ahead. Only one link in the chain of destiny can be handled at a time.” But the local leaders who lobbied for the creation of an independent center with the authority of recruiting both private and public universities from Maryland and neighboring jurisdictions had a vision that effectively looked a decade and a half into a future of expanded economic and social growth for the Region, with local graduate education opportunities an indispensable and crucial element in the complex and sometimes mysterious weave of elements that constitute a high quality of community life. Like Winston Churchill in his finest hour, the Center’s founders had a vision that looked far into the future.
February 28, 2012