administrators

Essay on issues for colleges to consider when mergers are being discussed

In unprecedented ways, those in higher education leadership positions are now genuinely worried about both the viability of many good colleges and universities and the possibility that many of those that survive will be damaged.

The litany of problems is well-known to readers of Inside Higher Ed: declining enrollment; untenable tuition discounts; too much debt; the growing skepticism on the part of prospective students, their families and elected officials about whether the value of a college education is worth the cost; staggering amounts of deferred maintenance and decreased state support for public campuses.

In this climate, it is not surprising many college and university presidents and boards now think that merging with another institution may be their best road to fiscal sustainability if not to survival. No one I know who is contemplating such a step does so lightly. They are fully aware of the potential negative consequences for their faculty, staff, students, alumni and even local residents. There are some happy exceptions: institutions that are strong as they are but believe that a merger will bring them benefits without their sacrificing their current mission, faculty and staff.

My role as president of the University of Puget Sound in our 1993 decision to transfer our law school to Seattle University has led a number of presidents and trustees to speak to me about possible mergers. This was an important mission decision for us, which we made even though the law school was bringing us $750,000 a year in overhead. Moreover, unlike many prospective mergers today, this was one of those decisions that did indeed benefit both institutions, and one in which no one lost a job or compensation. Specifically, Seattle University agreed to honor all rank and tenure for faculty, to retain all staff and to offer comparable compensation. The law school also remained in its location in Tacoma for five years until Seattle University built a new facility, which was far more desirable than the Puget Sound location. Even so, the decision was highly contentious at the time, leading to at least one lawsuit, angry editorials and cartoons in the local newspaper, some distressed alumni and a few outraged elected officials. Today, most parties celebrate the decision.

Most of those contemplating merger today are not as fortunate in that they are generally prompted by serious concerns about whether their institution can continue to exist as it is currently constituted.

The three examples that follow are grounded in actual situations but in the interest of confidentiality, I have altered aspects of their identities. None of the institutions I discuss have retained me to help them with a possible merger.

A trustee of a small Northeastern college with a local student body confided that he and a few other trustees are in very preliminary, confidential discussions about a possible merger with an institution with a similar mission, located a mere 10 miles away. The two colleges, which have a number of cross-applicants, have not met their budgeted enrollment numbers in the past six years. Both have been spending down their endowments in order to fund ongoing operations. Both estimate that if they continue on their current paths, they will be forced to close their doors within five years, perhaps sooner. They believe that by merging and sharing back offices, they will create important economies of scale. By offering courses and majors on only one campus, they expect to reduce the size of their faculty. Although they are not actively contemplating closing one of the campuses, fearing alumni and community protests and potential legal liability, some board members want this on the table.

The president of a once-selective private faith-based college in the Midwest -- facing declining enrollments and escalating tuition discounts -- shared his fantasy: the flagship Research I university located in the same city, now turning down many qualified in-state applicants, would acquire his campus to enable the university to accept a greater numbers of applicants. His fantasy further specified that although his college would become nonsectarian, in all other ways it would be true to its current mission with the same faculty and staff offering the same curriculum. His fears: the university might not want to assume either the significant amount of deferred maintenance on his campus or its abundance of debt. He also worried that because most of his faculty colleagues did not meet the university’s more rigorous research expectations, they might not be retained. His immediate question: How might he begin to foster such conversations with the university without risking public knowledge, which he believed would inevitably damage his institution?

Finally, the president of a small private liberal arts college west of the Mississippi, which also had long enjoyed stable enrollments, indicated that her institution was “barely holding its own” in terms of enrollments and that to achieve the desired number of students it had increased the financial aid discount to 55 percent, leading to the institution’s first operating deficit. She and the president of a polytechnic university located two hours away had engaged in some preliminary conversations, conjecturing that a merger would enable them to become a comprehensive university rather than separate institutions offering a limited range of programs. Both recognized that for a merger to make sense, they would need to consolidate their programs on one campus. Understandably, both wanted their own campus to survive. Given that they could not resolve this issue, each was extremely nervous about what it would mean if these casual conversations became public. Neither had yet approached their boards.

Some institutions in the last year have gone beyond conversation and actually merged. Most notably, two colleges of fine arts have entered into merger agreements with larger universities.

  • In February, George Washington University and the Corcoran College of Art + Design announced that GW would assume ownership of the Corcoran building and operate the art college, which had been struggling financially. The National Gallery of Art would acquire much of the Corcoran’s collection. A few trustees from each institution confidentially negotiated this agreement, which resolved issues ranging from the ownership of the art collection and of the facilities to the role of the college faculty within the framework of GW. In response to a lawsuit, a District of Columbia Superior Court judge on August 18 approved the merger.
  • In April, the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts and the University of New Haven (UNH) announced that Lyme would become the sixth UNH College and its first bachelor of fine arts program. An article in The Day explained that the academy will, in the words of UNH’s president Steven H. Kaplan, be “semi-autonomous” and maintain its current mission. Lyme students will have access to UNH’s liberal arts programs, its campus in Florence, Italy, its career counseling office and its library. UNH will oversee Lyme’s finances, and the UNH admissions staff will now recruit for Lyme.  UNH will also in the early years subsidize Lyme until its enrollments grow to an anticipated level that would allow Lyme to become financially self-sufficient.

In the last several years, we have also seen the emergence of TCS Education System, a nonprofit organization of five previously independent college or universities that have affiliated. Although each institution has its own board, presidents and accreditation, all the campuses are ultimately governed by a system board and a system president. Founded as a not-for-profit education system in 2009, an inspiration of Michael Horowitz, then president of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, the system today includes the following:

  • The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, which offers more than 20 degree programs and many international opportunities in psychology and related behavioral and health sciences for more than 4,000 students in Chicago, Washington,D.C. and California.
  • The Santa Barbara and the Ventura Colleges of Law.
  • Saybrook University in San Francisco, which focuses on humanistic studies offering advanced degrees in psychology, mind-body medicine, organizational systems, and human science.
  • The Dallas Institute of Nursing, which offers an associate degree and vocational nursing programs.
  • Pacific Oaks College, which offers bachelor's-completion, master's, and certificate programs in human development, counseling, education, early childhood education, and teacher credentialing on its main campus in Pasadena and satellite locations,.

What differentiates TCS from most nonprofit education systems is that it provides both a broad overarching mission that is consistent with each college’s mission and also shared services for all institutions. Approximately 150 staff members are located in TCS-space in Chicago and Irvine, California, providing support for international services, legal affairs, admissions operations, financial aid, technology, finance, marketing and human resources and institutional research. This model allows the TCS schools to offer a level and quality of support that no one institution would be able to afford.

The TCS model has several other distinctive characteristics. Most campuses are located in urban areas that provide plentiful services to students so that TCS does not need to invest in amenities. Its focus is mainly on the adult student who, on average, is a 35-year-old woman who is seeking a professional degree or is interested in completing the bachelor’s degree. Most of the TCS programs are professional graduate degrees or degree-completion programs

Not all merger attempts have been successful. For example, in recent months, four well-publicized potential mergers of educational institutions have failed.

In February, the board of Point University in Georgia, a nonsectarian institution that was previously affiliated with the Church of Christ, decided not to pursue an already-announced merger with Montreat College in North Carolina, which is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church. Montreat’s alumni, students and faculty had vehemently objected to the plan. The Point board was further discouraged by certain legal concerns having to do with the use of the Montreat campus and the composition of the board of a merged institution.

In April, a planned merger between Virginia Intermont College (VIC) and Florida’s Webber International University came unraveled, leading VIC within a month to announce that it was closing.

In early July, Scripps Research Institute announced that it was withdrawing from talks with the University of Southern California about the possibility of USC absorbing Scripps. The announced reason for the breakdown was the opposition of 10 department chairs and the dean, apparently acting with the support of the 262 Scripps faculty members who, according to Chemical & Engineering News, voted nearly unanimously to reject the leadership of Scripps president Michael Marletta.

In August the New Hampshire Institute of Art (NHIA) board, in response to student protests, agreed to reconsider its decision to merge with Southern New Hampshire University. The New Hampshire Union Leader quoted NHIA Interim President Richard Strawbridge as saying "The decision was made to slow down a little bit" but that to survive NHIA needed to increase its enrollment from its current 500 to 650 students.

Because conversations about merger often require confidentiality and because the issues involved in a merger will vary from situation to situation, it is impossible to know how many other colleges and universities have explored and then rejected merger or what the issues were. I believe, nevertheless, that the cases discussed above offer some lessons to be learned and some questions to be asked:

  • Colleges and universities need to address their financial challenges, often manifest in ongoing structural deficits and unsustainably high endowment payouts, at the earliest possible moment rather than to take action only when they have little recourse other than closure or merger.
  • If there is a merger between two institutions, do both campuses remain open or does one close in order to reduce operating and capital expenses?  And if one is to close, how do the negotiating boards make the decision about which one? What weight should they give to such factors as the comparative amount of deferred maintenance, which campus has the more desirable location in terms of admissions and whether one campus has a greater likelihood of being sold to another entity in order to have additional funds to support the new merged institution?
  • If two campuses with low enrollments merge and one campus is closed, what reason is there to believe that students who were interested in the now-defunct campus would enroll at the new merged institution, in a different location?
  • If a campus is to close, what is its board’s responsibility in terms of maintaining its legacy (as Harvard University did by creating the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study when Radcliffe merged into Harvard)?
  • If a campus closes, what happens to its endowment, particularly restricted gifts?
  • If a campus closes, how will the students from that campus be accommodated?
  • Assuming that the merger is intended to create economies of scale, who decides and on what basis which faculty and staff members will be retained and who will be let go? Who decides and on what basis which programs will continue and which will be closed?
  • What will happen to the boards of the merging institutions? Will they merge into a combined board or will a new board entirely be constituted? 
  • What degree will graduates be given going forward? Will alumni be given the opportunity to change their degree-granting institution to the new entity?
  • What name should a merged entity carry?

In addition to contemplating such questions and others, those involved in possible merger discussions would be advised to engage the best legal advice that they can from the earliest stages of conversation. They would also be advised to engage a public relations firm to help them craft their communications to both internal and  external constituencies. This would pertain to decisions ranging from those in which the institutions have an obligation to garner public opinions to those which that in all likelihood will be controversial and unpopular. Throughout the process, their chief financial officers should in an ongoing way determine the costs and benefits of each possible scenario, not only in financial terms but also in terms of what it will mean to the faculty, staff and students involved.

But most of all, although most merger discussions will be prompted by dire financial circumstances -- with the happy exceptions I note above -- all those involved in such discussions need always to recognize the genuine emotional impact on the faculty, staff, students, alumni and the local community of such a decision. They especially need to be mindful of the consequences for those faculty and staff who lose their jobs and a local community that might lose a cherished institution. Such recognition will not compensate for the genuine loss people will experience if an institution to which they have been committed in some way is either abolished or significantly altered, but we can hope that this recognition will lead those making the decision to do so as carefully and humanely as possible.

Susan Resneck Pierce is president emerita of the University of Puget Sound and [resident of SRP CONSULTING. She is the author of Governance Reconsidered: How Boards, Presidents, Senior Administrators and Faculty Can Help Their Institutions Thrive (Jossey-Bass, 2014) and On Being Presidential (Jossey-Bass, 2011).

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Jameis Winston Suspended Half a Game

Jameis Winston, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback who was accused of sexual assault in 2012, will sit out the first half of Florida State University's game Saturday after several students reported seeing him stand on a table and yell a sexual epithet in the student union. (For those who are offended by explicit language, be warned about reading further.)

Numerous students tweeted about the incident on Tuesday, Deadspin reported, with Winston reportedly yelling "Fuck her right in the pussy." The saying is associated with an Internet meme based on a fake viral video -- a prank of sorts where passersby say the phrase during live news broadcasts.

“As a result of his comments yesterday, which were offensive and vulgar, Jameis Winston will undergo internal discipline and will be withheld from competition for the first half of the Clemson game,” the university said in a statement Wednesday.

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Anti-Defamation League Advice on Anti-Israel Protests

A letter sent by the Anti-Defamation League advising college and university officials on how to respond to anti-Israel action on campus has some free speech advocates worried about a chilling effect. The letter calls out American Muslims for Palestine in particular, and the group's "Day of Action" planned for September 23. The group is asking that colleges eliminate study abroad programs to Israel, ban administrators traveling to Israel, and not allow scholars to participate in research with Israeli academics. In its letter, the Anti-Defamation League called the event "an effort to isolate and demonize" Jewish organizations. "We have a long history of fighting for the ideals of individual expression and the free exchange of ideas, even when we disagree with the ideas being exchanged," Seth Brysk, the organization's Central Pacific Regional Director, wrote. "However, no university should countenance attempts to discourage and suppress free speech, or harass and intimidate Jewish and other students. When this occurs, as in the examples noted above, appropriate action should be taken."

The Anti-Defamation League recommended that institutions implement several policies, including being aware of Israeli-Palestinian debates taking place on campus, providing adequate security at events that have the potential to escalate, and sending a senior university official to "potentially hostile events" to remind those in attendance of a college's code of conduct. The organization also implored colleges to "remember the school’s obligations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, particularly the responsibility of the school not only to investigate an incident, but to take prompt and effective steps to eliminate any hostile environment and to take proactive steps to prevent its recurrence." In a statement Wednesday by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Robert Shibley, FIRE's senior vice president, said that many of the polices "were unobjectionable" but others were cause for concern. "While senior officials are of course free to attend any campus event, requiring students hosting 'potentially hostile events' (whatever that means) to allow those officials to offer prefatory remarks about campus policies risks chilling speech at the event," Shibley wrote.

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Facebook Claim, Maybe Hoax, Alarms Old Dominion U.

It may be a hoax, but an anonymous claim on Facebook has authorities at Old Dominion University investigating whether a student is trying to poison a roommate, WTKR News reported. The claim is on a "confessions" page for the university -- such pages exist for many colleges and students anonymous post about crushes or opinions. In this post, the student allegedly is putting items in the food of a roommate that will make her ill. Authorities announced that they have identified the individual who posted the claim and that no charges have been filed.

 

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President of Paine, Under Fire, Resigns

George C. Bradley resigned as president of Paine College Tuesday, The Augusta Chronicle reported. Paine is a historically black college that has been placed on probation by its accreditor. Critics have said Bradley has not moved to fix the financial and other problems that led to the probation. A statement from the college said that Bradley is leaving to spend more time with his family.

 

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U. of California Launches $250 Million Venture Fund

The University of California System is creating UC Ventures, a $250 million fund that will seek to invest in research developed by faculty members and students. The fund will be a stand-alone division of the university system's endowment operations, and has been directed to take a long-term approach.

 

West Florida Faculty, Trustees at Odds Over President

Faculty members at the University of West Florida criticized their president, Judy Bense, Monday before the university's Board of Trustees; the move followed a Faculty Senate vote of no confidence in the president last week. Faculty members want Bense to step down in June, when her contract expires, the Pensacola News-Journal reported, with some saying that her standards for student admissions are too low and that she puts promoting the university's sports programs ahead of academics.

In response to faculty concerns, the board voted overwhelmingly to pass a resolution in support of the president. They've praised her leadership, saying she helped the university earn its spot on Forbes's "America's Top Colleges" list, among other national rankings. The News-Journal said that Bense had acknowledged that some students who enrolled in the university on her watch should not have been able to, and she pledged to move the university up from last in the state's rating system. That position resulted in a $4 million withholding of state funds this year.

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Essay criticizing the TEACH Act

Amid great anticipation, Apple last week rolled out its latest products. All the fanfare and breathless media coverage serves to underscore the excitement innovative technologies generate across our society. This is especially true for higher education. Few other industries integrate technology so thoroughly into their work.

That is why higher education leaders are so concerned about legislation that would take decision-making about the use of technology to support learning out of the hands of campuses and turn it over to an obscure federal agency.

The TEACH (Technology, Equality and Accessibility in College and Higher Education) Act comes from the best of intentions. Its sponsors hope to improve how campuses meet the needs of students with disabilities, and to help give guidance to institutions struggling to reconcile their responsibilities to those students with the relentless pace of technological innovation. These are goals campuses strongly support.

As is so often the case in Washington, though, the devil is in the details. Our organizations, along with 19 other higher education groups representing nearly every American college and university, have serious concerns about what the TEACH Act would mean for higher education’s ability to use technology to advance learning.

In short, the legislation would actually prevent us from using new technology to better serve our students, including students with disabilities.

We shared these concerns with the advocacy group that favors this legislation, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), over a year and a half ago. Some supporters of the bill have wrongly implied that our opposition stems from something other than a desire for the best policy outcome for all students, including those with disabilities. This is not true. Nor do such assertions help students, or advance good policy.

Let us be very clear: we believe the federal government can play a valuable role in improving accessibility without inhibiting the use of technology to improve learning for all students. But that is not what the TEACH Act would do.

Rather than simply providing helpful, voluntary guidelines, the TEACH Act would effectively require colleges to only use technologies that meet guidelines created by a federal agency, or risk being sued.

This agency (the Access Board) has never directly addressed higher education technology issues before, and how it would tackle the incredible diversity of digital instructional materials and related technologies that campuses employ (everything from e-text books to dynamic weather simulators) is far from clear.

The key problem with this approach is that while technological innovations are being made every day, federal agencies do not move nearly that fast. The TEACH Act would require the federal guidelines to be updated every three years — a very long time in the technology world — and that’s the best-case scenario.

The reality is that the Access Board’s pace is far slower. The agency’s current technology guidelines for the federal government were last promulgated in 2000; it has been in the process of trying to “refresh” those guidelines for close to a decade.

What’s more, the TEACH Act would deny colleges and universities the flexibility provided in current law to meet students’ needs when full technological solutions are not yet available.

The bill would apply a new, extremely rigid standard for accessibility exclusively to colleges and universities that is distinct from the standard the nation as a whole, including the federal government, has long followed. Such an inflexible approach would limit, not enhance, our ability to serve persons with disabilities. 

With this in mind, could the process proposed in the TEACH Act even work? Or, as is more likely, would colleges and universities find themselves restricted to using technology that is years (or decades) behind the times, with no flexibility to adapt and better serve their students, including those with disabilities?

The bottom line: the bill as currently drafted would unambiguously inhibit the development and adoption of new learning technologies that would directly benefit students.

Colleges and universities lead the way in designing and developing accessible technologies, filling a vital gap where the private sector — including many publishers of textbooks and learning materials — has been largely unresponsive.

It is hard to imagine the impact on learning if colleges and universities are forced to wait years for the federal government to catch up with technology. 

We take our responsibilities to our students seriously, and part of that commitment is keeping pace with technology. Doing so can pose challenges for campuses trying to balance the possible benefits of emerging technologies with our responsibilities to our students.

But freezing the development and implementation of new learning technologies, as the TEACH Act would do, has serious consequences. Rather than helping students with disabilities, putting such a policy into law would ensure that all students are left behind as technology advances. We remain committed to finding an approach that will truly improve learning for everyone, and we hope others will join us.
 

Terry W. Hartle is senior vice president of government and public affairs of the American Council on Education. Jarret S. Cummings is director of policy and external relations of EDUCAUSE.

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U. of Oregon search criticized by faculty

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As the newly independent University of Oregon searches for a new president, faculty and staff unions say it's being too secretive.

 

U. of Florida Searches for Suspect Who Assaulted 4

Four female students at the University of Florida have been assaulted on campus since August 30, all by who officials believe to be the same man. The four victims describe the suspect as a large, white man in his twenties, dressed in university-themed clothing, the Miami Herald reports. The women, sometimes with the help of bystanders, were all able to fight off the suspect's attempts at raping them, officials said, but Gainesville and university police are still searching for the man. "We’re coming after you," Linda Stump, the university's police chief, warned the suspect in a press conference Monday.

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