Middlebury College has always been known for its undergraduate programs in the liberal arts, especially in languages. The college has become increasingly popular with applicants in recent years, but officials have struggled to figure out whether and how to expand its small graduate program.
The college may have an unusual solution: taking over a graduate school.
The Monterey Institute of International Studies, a California graduate school with a strong academic reputation but struggling finances, approached Middlebury about a possible deal, and the two institutions are in serious discussions about an acquisition.
For Middlebury, assuming control of the institute could make it an immediate player in graduate education, expand its visibility on the West coast, and help build its connections to Asia (a strength of Monterey by virtue of its academic priorities and its Pacific location).
For Monterey, the deal could mean survival. While institute officials declined to discuss specifics, the college has been in financial trouble for some time. Two years ago, it briefly explored the possibility of becoming part of the University of California at Santa Cruz, but those talks fell apart amid California's budget crisis.
In the last year for which the Monterey Institute has financial records at Guidestar, a Web site with information about nonprofit groups, its expenses outpaced revenues, $32 million to $25 million. Its assets were valued at $47 million. In contrast, Middlebury's endowment is worth more than $650 million.
Phil Benoit, a spokesman for Middlebury, said that the Monterey Institute approached Middlebury about a year ago, and that while the deal is not final, it has "been gaining momentum."
Benoit said that Middlebury's graduate programs in the languages focus on people training to become teachers. Monterey, in contrast, has a range of language-related programs -- with programs in translation, interpretation, international business and international studies, in addition to a range of certificate programs.
"This is an opportunity that was presented to us as a combination that looked like it made some sense," Benoit said. "To develop a full-blown graduate program in international graduate studies would be quite an undertaking. Here's a program that's existing and these are the kinds of programs we would look at if we were considering setting up something ourselves."
While faculty members have been involved in studying the possible deal, a majority recently recommended against the plan at a faculty meeting.
Priscilla Bremser, a professor of mathematics, was among those who spoke against the plan. "I don't see how acquiring a graduate institution is consistent with our mission as a liberal arts college," she said. "And this particular institution seems to have a lot of problems. Our administration has been very honest about them, and they could take time, energy and money away from our mission."
Language study at Middlebury is "the liberal arts approach," while at Monterey "it's the study of language for use as a tool," she added.
Benoit said that faculty members need not fear any erosion of Middlebury's liberal arts orientation. The plan would preserve Monterey's California campus, and while officials would look for opportunities for the two campuses to collaborate, most programs would remain unchanged. He also said that there would be "great care not to mingle the finances of the two programs."
If the Middlebury-Monterey deal goes through, it would follow several others in which small private colleges were purchased (or are in discussions to be purchased) by others.
In March, Bridgepoint Education, a for-profit higher education company, announced  the purchase of the Franciscan University of the Prairies, in Iowa, and changed the institution's name to Ashford University. Salem International University, in West Virginia, is negotiating  to be sold to three for-profit entities. And Saint Mary's College of California is considering  plans to transfer its adult education programs to Regis University.