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No Med School Merger for Rice

January 13, 2010

Merger discussions between Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine officially shut down Tuesday, as the heads of the two institutions conceded that the partnership they’d championed for months simply isn’t in the cards.

The merger had drawn passionate support and loyal opposition at Rice, where faculty debated whether adding a medical school would bolster research and add prestige, or tarnish Rice’s identity and saddle it with Baylor’s financial difficulties.

David Leebron, Rice’s president, and William Butler, interim president of Baylor, issued a joint statement Tuesday suggesting collaborations would continue but merger talks would end.

“We learned that we share similar missions and a commitment to the highest standards of education, research and community service,” the statement read. “So, while we are bringing the merger discussions to a close, we are opening a new chapter of collaboration that will advance the field of biomedicine and improve human health.”

The statement does not detail the reasons for the breakdown in talks, other than to note that a memorandum of understanding governing the discussions was set to expire by month’s end.

Leebron and Butler both declined interview requests, and media officials at the institutions would not answer specific questions.

Rice had set forth a number of specific conditions for a merger, including a requirement that Baylor place itself on a path to financial stability. The college, which has severed ties with two different hospitals since 2004, has had difficulties without those hospital partnerships.

In an e-mail to faculty Dec. 18, Butler and Marc Shapiro, chair of Baylor’s board, suggested the college would “continue as one of the top institutions in the country” whether a merger occurred or not.

“With deans, chairs and center directors, we have set the college on a course of living within its means,” the e-mail stated. “The next few years will be challenging, but the budgets we are setting can and will be met.”

Baylor College of Medicine became independent of Baylor University in 1969, but a partnership may be under discussion again, the Houston Chronicle reported. Citing sources within the Texas Medical Center -- a group of colleges, hospital and clinics -- the newspaper suggested that Baylor University is now making "serious overtures" toward the medical college.

Baylor University officials would not comment on any merger discussions Tuesday.

Hospital Partnership Remained Elusive

Predictably, reactions to the end of talks were mixed at Rice. John Boles, a Rice history professor who criticized merger opponents for using “fear and misrepresentation” during the debate, expressed disappointment Tuesday.

“I am deeply saddened that the merger did not work out,” Boles, who was traveling in Germany, wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed.

Among the chief critics of the merger was Moshe Vardi, a professor of computer science at Rice who questioned whether a merger was necessary to produce the research collaborations supporters envisioned. Upon hearing the news that merger talks had ended, Vardi said he was “relieved.”

"I have argued for many months now that the proposed Rice-BCM merger is ill advised. I am relieved to learn that the Rice administration has reached the same conclusion,” Vardi, who was traveling in Israel, wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed. “I am also pleased to hear that there will be an increased emphasis on collaborations between Rice and BCM. Finally, I hope that a way will be found to solve BCM's financial challenges."

One of the key conditions for a merger outlined by Rice was that Baylor establish a partnership with a hospital specializing in adult care. Baylor has ties to specialty hospitals that treat children and cancer in Texas, but the college has had a tough time sustaining relationships with general care adult hospitals in recent years. Baylor had a public falling out with Methodist Hospital in 2004, following a 54 year partnership. After that, Baylor had a brief partnership with St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital. Efforts to build an independent hospital have also hit snags because of finances.

During its merger negotiations with Rice, Baylor again reached out to Methodist and St. Luke’s, according to e-mails provided to Inside Higher Ed. Ron Girotto, chief executive director of Methodist, said in a June 10 e-mail to Methodist medical staff that the hospital would begin discussions about collaborating with Rice “after” any merger. An adult hospital relationship, however, was established as a precondition of a merger by Rice officials.

Girotto further noted that Methodist already has a primary affiliation with Weill Cornell Medical School -- not Baylor. In a statement Tuesday, Methodist officials reiterated that point.

"Today we learned the merger negotiations between Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine ended in a decision not to merge," the statement said. "The Methodist Hospital is primarily affiliated with Weill Cornell Medical School and enjoys several ongoing programs with Rice and Baylor. We will continue to look for ways to expand our collaborations with each school."

Baylor also reached out to St. Luke's about resurrecting their partnership, but that discussion similarly bore no fruit, according to the Dec. 18 e-mail Baylor's president and board chair wrote.

Medical school mergers are not new to academe, and their successes have been varied. A 2006 merger between the Medical College of Ohio and the University of Toledo remains intact. On the other hand, talks of a merger between Pennsylvania State University’s Hershey Medical Center and Geisinger Health System in Danville, Pa., began in 1997 only to unravel three years later.

William Mallon, senior director for organizational learning and research at the Association of American Medical Colleges, conducted a case study of the failed Pennsylvania State merger. He notes that it, like a number of other failed mergers, fell apart because of cultural tensions -- not just financial concerns.

“The public pronouncement there about why it didn’t work was financial, but what I found was that those [issues] probably could have been solved,” said Mallon, whose 2003 paper on the merger was published in Academic Medicine. “It was the underlying fundamental disagreement about how organizations work and how people within those organizations work. That simply was incompatible.”

If Baylor and Rice have recognized their merger is unworkable before they enter an agreement, then “good for them,” Mallon said.

“Calling off a wedding is a lot less costly than a messy divorce," he said.

 

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