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Wednesday, October 29th 2008

Baylor College of Medicine To Merge With Rice University?

Baylor College of Medicine is the only ‘private’ (and I use that term only because it is technically correct) medical school in the great state of Texas. It is also a pretty prestigious institution with a long and storied history. See Michael DeBakey.

Rice University is a world renowned school with a strong focus on engineering and the sciences. It is located in Houston, TX right next to the famous Texas Medical Center including Baylor College of Medicine.

Baylor CoM did indeed start out as part of Baylor University. Originally the medical school was situated in Dallas. But in 1969 the school severed its ties with Baylor University in Waco, TX. Since that time it has been a freestanding graduate biomedical university. That isn’t a too common situation in medical education in the U.S.

Talks of Baylor and Rice University merging are not new, but apparently the rumor now has more basis than it ever has. The Houston Chronicle is reporting that high level talks are currently ongoing between the two institutions.

The negotiations came to light as talk circulates around the Texas Medical Center about Baylor’s ability to balance its budget while building a hospital in an era of tight credit markets and economic malaise.

The possible strains have raised questions about the future of Baylor’s president, Dr. Peter Traber. A spokesperson declined comment, but numerous sources in the Medical Center said his leadership is the subject of board discussion.

Rice and Baylor have had talks in the past, but observers said they never reached the serious stage, mostly because of resistance on Rice’s part. But Rice professors said this week that President David Leebron is very receptive to the idea.

Now true, there are rampant rumors amongst Texas medical education. The Baylor-Rice was a key one, as is the one that UTMB will move to Austin, TX (although interim UT chancellor Kenneth Shine recently denied that was imminent), or that Methodist and the University of Houston are pursuing the development of a medical school. But the two schools involved in these merger talks basically admitted the truth behind this rumor in a joint statement. Such would certainly shake up medical education in Texas a little bit.

My big concern is over what will happen to the students and to the relationship Baylor has with the state in terms of subsidizing student education. There are bigger concerns, I’m sure. Mostly revolving around money.

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.

Here are a list of their endowments and a look at Baylor’s substantial NIH biomedical grants.

The state of Texas underwrites undergraduate medical education more than any other state in the nation. It’s a beautiful thing if you’re a medical student. Texas medical schools have some of the lowest tuitions in the nation. I was talking to a former Dean at a Texas medical school and the figure he tossed out was that the state supplied something like 75 or 80% of the costs of education for a medical student; with student tuition covering as little as 20% (or maybe less).

What is a little unusual is that the state underwrites the tuition for Baylor’s medical students just as it does for the students at the public medical schools. In the early 1970s Dr. Michael DeBakey was serving as chancellor of Baylor College of Medicine. At the time the UT system, with the blessing of the Texas State Legislature, was going on a medical school building spree and was considering opening more schools. Dr. DeBakey convinced the State Legislature that instead of putting money into a new school that they should just underwrite Baylor. And they did.

In return, like public medical schools in the state, Baylor is required to take at least 70% of its incoming medical school class from Texas residents. But it also means that amongst say the “Top 20″ (as U.S. News reports them) medical schools Baylor is likely the most affordable. That is even against the state medical schools which make the list; and that is a substantial claim.

As I understand it however, one of the preconditions for getting that deal was actually breaking off the relationship with the private Baylor University in Waco, TX. What will Baylor folding into Rice University mean for this funding scheme?

Will the tuition for Baylor College of Medical students be 30k, 40k, maybe more in coming years? Will the legislature keep funding this nonsensical subsidization of Baylor College of Medicine?

I hope so.

Baylor College of Medicine is struggling. That is a comparative statement understand. This is a highly prestigious institution. But it’s clinical associations have been an undeniable mess since 2004. President Dr. Peter Taber was lucky to save his job after an incredible break up with The Methodist Healthcare system in Houston. Methodist had been Baylor’s major teaching hospital since their early years in Houston. And suddenly the relationship was largely over. In the initial environment after the break up Baylor started negotiating to make St. Luke’s Healthcare their primary teaching partner but then suddenly turned tail, withdrawed from those talks, and decided to build their own private hospital which would be the school’s primary teaching site.

But now even that building project is struggling for financing in the current economic climate. And another major hospital is just what the Texas Medical Center needs.

I’m not going to lie; from the outside I percieve the Baylor leadership (and even some lower on the chain) as arrogant. The struggles haven’t exactly upset me. That said, I think a merger with Rice University, depending on the finances which I know little about, would be good for both institutions in terms of educational experience, research and certainly reputation.

We’ll see what happens.