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Lucy Wheelock founded Wheelock College in 1888 to train kindergarten teachers. The small private institution nestled in the Fenway neighborhood of Boston focused on improving the lives of children and families by training teachers and social workers. In 2017, with only 1,000 undergraduate and master’s students and a trend of declining enrollments, the future of Wheelock College was uncertain. Closure was not imminent, but it was definitely on the horizon.

This scenario is playing out at many small colleges across America. Clayton Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor who coined the term “disruptive innovation,” projected in 2011 that as many as half of all higher education institutions would be bankrupt in 10 to 15 years. Although his predicted timeline has proved overly pessimistic, his assessment is on point. The future is bleak for many small colleges. They are facing intense competition for students from a shrinking pool of prospective applicants, rising operating costs, limited assets and a shifting of interest among prospective students away from the liberal arts and toward professional programs that are seen as translating to higher salaries.

The public controversies resulting from the abrupt closing of several institutions have energized accreditors and state regulators to reconsider their roles in the oversight of the financial viability of private higher education. Yet the answer to navigating through these situations should not be additional and unwieldy regulation. Rather, it should be institutional leadership.

Often, trustees and administrations of institutions that are at risk of failure won’t act until they find themselves in financial free fall. Yet a case in point of a very different approach is the leadership of Wheelock College, which took actions that placed the institution on a different path -- one that protected the hopes and dreams of Wheelock students.

A Mission That Resonated

Instead of waiting until the stroke of midnight, Wheelock’s board and administration worked over several years to execute a plan aimed at finding an academic partner that could help preserve the institution’s cherished mission. Starting in the summer of 2017 with a request for concepts, the Wheelock board considered proposals from several interested institutions. Boston University, a major private research university with 33,000 students located about a half mile away, responded.

Why? Because the mission of Wheelock College resonated at BU. Even as it competes nationally with leading private universities for the most academically accomplished students and faculty members, as well as for external research support, Boston University remains committed to urban outreach and engagement. The university’s Methodist founders and early leaders envisioned an institution “in the heart of the City, in the service of the City,” a vision expressed in collaborations with Boston Public Schools and in the partnership between the university’s School of Medicine and Boston Medical Center. In addition, Boston University hosts nationally ranked schools of social work and of education that university leaders could imagine would be further strengthened by creatively combining them with Wheelock programs.

The essence of a vision that emerged swiftly was a commitment to re-energize teacher education and leverage the long-standing collaborations of both institutions with the Boston Public Schools.

Serious discussions began in July 2017. By August, the two institutions had achieved a level of confidence about the prospective merger to make the planning public.

The cornerstone of the agreement was the combination of BU’s School of Education with the Wheelock College School of Education, Child Life and Family Studies -- resulting in the Wheelock College of Education & Human Development as part of Boston University. Named in honor of Lucy Wheelock and in recognition of the resources that Wheelock brought to the merger, the new college will strengthen the urban mission of Boston University while also preserving Wheelock College’s mission. One of us, David Chard, the former president of Wheelock College, will lead this effort as the first dean of the combined college.

Academic planning for the new BU Wheelock College of Education & Human Development is now underway. The defining goal is to lead in urban teacher education, focusing attention on enduring problems of practice, promoting advances in the field that will transform educational experiences, and promoting access to a high-quality education for all children.

Making the Merger Work

The hard work of the merger began with the public announcement of merger planning. BU and Wheelock staff members collaborated to plot an academic road map for each Wheelock student. With one exception, all Wheelock degree paths were successfully accommodated within Boston University, and several new programs from Wheelock will launch in the coming months under the Boston University banner.

At last count, 588 Wheelock College students will join BU in the fall, 84 percent of the estimated 2018 returning student body. Each transferred student is paying tuition at the same rate they would have paid at Wheelock. The transition of those students to BU began with an orientation session complete with red carpet and the BU marching band, leading to students making their enrollment and housing choices.

Academic and administrative working groups also laid the groundwork for inevitably difficult decisions about the retention of faculty and staff members. All Wheelock tenured faculty members transferred to Boston University with commitments of permanent employment. Some non-tenure-track faculty and staff also transferred. But, in March of this year, we announced 118 layoffs, or 39 percent of the Wheelock work force. Long-term employees lost their jobs. Very generous severance payments and outplacement services did not mitigate the pain of closure for many of them. That was certainly the toughest part of the merger.

On May 18, Wheelock College held its final commencement ceremony after 130 years in existence, and on June 1, less than one year after the first merger conversations, the institution that Lucy Wheelock first envisioned ceased operation. Fortunately, however, her legacy lives on in the new college supported by an equally committed Boston University.

Some say that when you have studied one merger you have done just that: studied one merger. The details are not transferable. That may be true generally, but some lessons can be broadly useful:

  • Institutional leadership of an institution at risk should take thoughtful action before a crisis is in full bloom.
  • The community (board, alumni, faculty and staff) should identify the core mission or purpose of the institution that it wishes to preserve and identify prospective partners who might resonate with that core mission or purpose.
  • No amount of regulation by states or regional accreditors is a substitute for quality institutional leadership or a protection against poor decisions.

Finally, it’s crucial to always put the students first. After all, they are reason our institutions exist.

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