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In 2009-10, I was an American Council on Education fellow. All who undertake that leadership development preparation have a memorable experience called Pennyfield. Groups of fellows come together as the president and senior staff of Pennyfield College and -- based on a range of information about finance and mission, competitive market complications and national circumstances -- are asked to work together to create a presentation for the college’s Board of Trustees.

Teams have about 24 hours to identify core problems, propose solutions and, most crucially, reformulate the annual budget. Mentors are available around the clock, and groups can quickly become enthusiastic, competitive and dedicated advocates of the fictitious college. I do not remember what solution we found to Pennyfield’s financial morass nor how we proposed to solve the budget dilemmas, although the Pennyfield board, composed of former and present college presidents and chancellors from around the country, applauded our PowerPoint presentation and solution.

Contrast that experience to July 2012, when I became president of Shimer College. The board I worked with was not a role-playing one gathered to teach and mentor aspiring leaders. Nor were the students, faculty, staff, alumni, community members or our partner institutions imaginary. The financial dilemmas were real, the market challenges facing liberal education (especially in Illinois) immense, and our educational mission perplexing to or misunderstood by many people around us. In this, I was not unlike many of my peers who imagine administrative work and then face the realities of institutions that have their own particular histories and possibilities. Shimer was not Pennyfield.

And yet I thought about Pennyfield repeatedly during my years as president of Shimer College. I thought about who was not in the room when we undertook our 24 hours of work (faculty, students and administrative staff, for example, not to mention local community leaders). I thought as well about the ways the Pennyfield experience, created to help aspiring leaders understand finance, risked allowing educational mission to slip into a secondary place in the work of each team.

In fact, Pennyfield came to mind over and over again as insider’s shorthand for the intersecting dilemmas and hopes, the Gordian knot, that is American higher education generally and American private liberal arts colleges more particularly.

Recently, I reflected anew on Pennyfield, as I thought about the processes by which I led Shimerians to a new future. The work required finding Shimer College a potential partner (eventually North Central College). Then followed a nearly two-year process of regulatory, legal, financial and curricular work at two institutions, undertaken alongside significant data management, technological, infrastructure and employment changes. This past summer, Shimer and North Central College’s deal was completed, and what was once an autonomous Shimer became the Shimer Great Books School of North Central College. In one sense the deal was done. In another, it was simply another step along the way to a fully embedded Shimer Great Books School of North Central College.

Three Motifs

Neither the form of this victory nor the lessons I learned in pursuit of change would have occurred to me as I worked through the night on the difficulties facing Pennyfield in 2009-10. Here are three that are worth remembering.

First and foremost, life is not a case study. No matter how messy any case study is, reality is much messier. Much, though not all, of that mess may be discernible only in hindsight.

In the case of mergers and acquisitions in higher education, the messiness is not limited to a single aspect of the institution(s) but can be pervasive, reaching into every arena of institutional functioning -- including personnel, finance, governance, marketing and communication. Whether understood through the lens of structural, human resources, political or symbolic frames, the full organization is involved. (Of course, no such deal occurs in a vacuum, so the messiness may extend well beyond institutional boundaries.)

Among the messes that were notable were those where the governance differences between the two institutions were most evident. For example, internal Shimer governance was an assembly, which included all students, staff, faculty and administrators. And our Board of Trustees included two faculty members and three students as voting members. North Central follows a more traditional shared-governance model. Shimer’s community was tiny and close-knit, while North Central’s was larger.

As a result of those two differences, our communication plan at Shimer was substantially more complex than one might have guessed given the smaller scale -- for every member of the Shimer community had a governance role in our decision making and following one’s governance procedures is vitally important in such transactions. In our case, as well, every Shimerian, whether faculty member, administrator or student, was affected -- though differently -- by our decisions. Our student trustees, by the way, were amazing in their capacity for confidentiality and for responsiveness in the process.

Among the messy details we addressed together were:

  • shifting from semesters to trimesters;
  • ensuring students at various stages of their Shimer careers were able to graduate on time;
  • meeting the housing and commuting concerns of students -- whose needs varied significantly as we moved to a residential campus;
  • retaining staff members when few would be offered jobs at our new campus;
  • supporting student and staff choices about their futures with an eye to what was best for each individual while meeting metrics of student and staff continuation that would ensure the success of the deal;
  • raising substantial dollars from alumni and friends while navigating nondisclosure agreements;
  • planning for deal success while knowing how to manage deal failure;
  • managing emotions associated with loss and success as the deal neared completion; and more.

Such pervasive messiness has been acknowledged in the literature on mergers and acquisitions in higher education at least since the wave of mergers in the 1970s and the spate of meta-analyses of these that followed. While we may forget such messiness eventually -- as perhaps has happened in the decades-old cases of Carnegie Mellon University and Case Western Reserve University -- recognizing its likelihood may help prevent a forced choice between closure and merger, enhance our understanding of mergers as one of a series of kinds of strategic alliances, and strengthen the potential to accomplish the missions to which we are all committed.

It turns out, on reflection, that messiness can be the source of creativity and hope rather than failure. Working to ensure that is the case is one lesson to take from Shimer’s experience that is perhaps less obvious than what one learns from the more staged work of a case study.

Second, although Pennyfield was developed to facilitate financial and budgetary learning among aspiring leaders, nothing in higher education is simply or solely about money. In short, decisions about money have far-reaching implications and ought not be made in isolation. That is equally true of decisions regarding educational mission that willfully ignore the financial situation. In some very real sense, the tension between educational mission and the “business model” of higher education operates as a fractal -- it appears whether acknowledged or unacknowledged, in every decision, large or small, made by every actor in higher education.

Certainly that was true at Shimer, where the educational mission was distinctive and beloved and the financial precariousness both legendary and long-lived. To be successful, the acquisition, which led to the emergence of the Shimer Great Books School of North Central College, required meeting fund-raising and fiscal management goals and sustaining a continuity of curriculum and culture.

Third, presenting the idea is not the conclusion of one’s work -- most often, it is the beginning. Whereas the work of Pennyfield was done when the fictitious board applauded, the work of the real world is not concluded when the actual board receives reports, votes or recommends action. Much of the effort preparing for board meetings -- and then the follow-up work that comes from board decisions -- is relatively invisible to anyone not regularly on the campus. And the extraordinary work of a merger takes place in the interstices between routine educational, regulatory, financial and other activities.

There were many board votes at both Shimer and North Central, each a decision marker along the way. Each brought increasing commitments to engage with shared governance as well as rising demands for staff and faculty members at both institutions to prioritize efforts to make the deal “work.” That included a full summer of intensive labor (often by North Central personnel) on a change of control document for the Higher Learning Commission, a regulatory approval prerequisite to any further action, and the fulfillment of additional deal-related requirements. Some of Shimer’s board members appeared on a regular basis (and at some points, on a daily one) on the campus as we moved toward the future -- communicating, raising money, managing budgets and personnel, and helping ensure that the board’s decision came to fruition.

The idea of coming together with another institution as a new form of Shimer was, thus, only the beginning. We came to know that as the days, weeks and months wore on from our initial conversations to the final signatures on documents. The changes we were managing -- leading -- always felt rushed and always took too much time. The carrying of the business solution of mergers and acquisitions into the landscape of our particular corner of American higher education did not mean that the tension between speed and deliberation, business model and educational mission, dissolved.

In fact, regulatory, legal and financial tasks of higher education mergers and acquisitions are time-consuming. They have opportunity costs and are often undertaken in circumstances where staff and faculty members are already stretched, as was the case with Shimer and to a lesser extent North Central College. What began, we thought, as a six-month process was, in fact, a two-year process. As we build change together, we are both building and refusing history -- working at the cusp between a certain past and an uncertain future, when history matters less than the stories we tell to hold past and future together. Time matters -- and we never have enough to be prepared for what comes next.

Wicked Problems

Everything else is a corollary to these three points: messiness is pervasive, money is not everything and ideas are the start -- not the end -- of institutional work.

Whether we are discussing the kind of asset purchase agreement undertaken by Shimer and North Central or other decisions on other campuses, the quandaries we face in higher education are what I referred to above as a Gordian knot and what some refer to as “wicked problems,” raising matters that are ethical and managerial -- affecting more people than one is likely to imagine both at individual and group levels. Those matters are located at the confluence of the symbolic, the political, the structural and the interpersonal. Rarely is our time frame 24 hours. Rarely are our options singular. Most often, they require a both-and approach rather than an either-or. Change is always about loss and gain.

The kinds of full-on change that Shimer -- and North Central, perhaps less obviously -- risked involve every one of the characteristics of wicked problems: “a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems.” Wicked problems require us to resist both simple binaries and endless perseveration, both the absence of analytical thought and analysis paralysis, both simplistic approaches and immobilizing complexity.

Indeed, a quick review of the literature on higher education reveals that much of what we at colleges and universities do has been labeled a wicked problem in recent years: assessing our quality, strategy and strategic planning, as well as our capacities to transform our institutions to meet the needs of the social order; moderating the growth of tuition; addressing access and affordability; and much more. While Pennyfield was itself attempting to present us with a wicked problem, capable of many solutions and yet nearly impossible to solve, such problems become more salient than ever when one moves from case study to real life.

Among the challenges facing us at Shimer were the conflicting requirements to hold matters confidential yet to be transparent, to use democratic processes of shared governance yet retain the urgency of top-down, board-level decision making. In real-world dynamics, we had no choice but to focus on institutional (regulatory, legal, financial and educational) change and the cultural particularities of Shimer itself.

The fact is, whether we are discussing Pennyfield or Shimer, change in higher education is always about refusing the easy solution. It is about change as loss and gain, about the human impact of all we do, and about the capacity to hold multiple possibilities in mind and in action as we build a more sustainable educational model.

When we are successful, leadership in higher education and in the classroom means navigating between necessary change and change for change’s sake, between proactive and reactive stances. When we are successful, we are the bridge between past and future that refuses nostalgia and empty optimism in favor of hope. That is the victory Shimer has found -- for now.

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