After a year and a half of talks and looking at each other's books, two Roman Catholic colleges in western New York have decided not to merge.
The colleges, St. Bonaventure University and Hilbert College, have worked together on educational offerings for two decades, but lately had been talking about bringing their institutions far closer legally and operationally. Both are concerned about enrollment declines.
Yet the two colleges, both with Franciscan traditions, decided in recent days against a merger or anything just shy of one. They were unable to agree about the possible future entity’s governance structure. The colleges declined to specify what exactly would not work.
"Collaborative partnerships do not come easy in this region,” said Hilbert President Cynthia Zane. "Even being here nine years, I’ve watched that, as a member of this community."
Their ties clearly remain, though. Zane and Bonaventure’s president, Sister Margaret Carney, did a joint press conference on Saturday at the Hilbert campus to talk about why a closer integration did not work. They were joined by the chairwoman and chairman of their respective governing boards.
The two colleges had shied away from using the word "merger" when they announced the talks in October 2013, though that was how everything ended up being billed publicly.
That the two institutions could not reach an agreement may give pause to the notion that colleges across the country are likely to merge amid demographic pressures facing small private colleges, though these talks certainly ended more amicably than other such discussions.
Zane said the colleges still intend to expand their work together, even if officials decided against changing the legal structures that make them separate institutions.
She said she didn’t have a crystal ball but the decision now did not take a future merger off the table.
Sister Margaret said there will be different people in charge down the road, so it may not be helpful to speculate about the future.
Still, the two remain close. Bonaventure offers graduate courses on Hilbert’s campus 60 miles away, and leaders from the two institutions said they are sharing students and professors and are working on jointly offering degrees.
Sister Margaret said going through the colleges' books helped her own board know more about the institution.
“Now, the entire board has had to dig down,” she said.
Sister Margaret suggested some smaller, more isolated colleges that are closing now or might close would benefit from a more informed board. She speculated that some trustees walk into a meeting, get cold water thrown in their face about the college going under and don’t have time to turn things around.
St. Bonaventure Board Chair Raymond Dee cited unspecific complexities when talking about why the two colleges decided not to become more closely linked.
Some of the challenges that prompted the talks remain -- notably the demographic changes in their student market. Western New York is expected to graduate one-sixth fewer high school students by the end of the decade.
The presidents of both institutions said they are working on recruiting outside their markets.
Leaders of the institutions said they did not receive much negative reaction from students or alumni to their “strategic alliance” discussions.
“It was more like, ‘We’re curious and we’re concerned, but you haven’t told us anything that makes us come down with picket signs and engage in sit-ins,’” Sister Margaret said.