A Long View on Higher Ed Mergers

As the president of a university that is the result of two consolidations many decades ago, Mark Burstein offers some perspective to institutional leaders today.

November 14, 2019
Milwaukee-Downer clock now at Lawrence University

The announcement of the consolidation of Marlboro and Emerson Colleges is the most recent example of institutions of higher education combining to ensure educational opportunities and their institutional legacies. While mergers of this type are not new phenomena, their frequency has recently accelerated within the sector. In light of shifting demographics and financial considerations, higher education institutions have good reasons to pursue this strategy: mergers can, and do, work.

Done well, a consolidation sustains the legacies of the merged institutions in perpetuity. As the president of a university that is the result of two mergers, the first in 1895 and the second 55 years ago, I offer a long view, along with a few words of advice, to those considering this significant decision today.

Milwaukee-Downer College and Lawrence College announced they would combine their two institutions in 1964, thereby creating what is now Lawrence University. Milwaukee-Downer’s campus developed in Milwaukee in 1895 after the merger of Milwaukee College and Downer College. In the 1964 merger, the Milwaukee campus was sold to the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, and students, faculty members and curriculum were transferred to the Lawrence College campus in Appleton, Wis. The combination of these institutions was precipitated by declining enrollment and growing budget deficits at Milwaukee-Downer College -- a familiar impetus for merger talks today.

Lawrence and Milwaukee-Downer were both private colleges committed to the education of women. Milwaukee-Downer was a women’s college; Lawrence was the first co-educational institution in the state of Wisconsin and one of the earliest in the United States. Both had strong traditions in the liberal arts and egalitarian education. Those deeply held traits would serve as the foundation for a successful, if not always seamless, consolidation.

Following the announcement, reactions at the two colleges were markedly different. For Lawrence faculty members, the prospect of the merger was exciting; it represented new possibilities for the institution. The merger meant a doubling of the endowment, reduced teaching loads, increased salaries and, as they saw it, no significant changes to daily life on the campus. The feeling at Milwaukee-Downer was somber. The campus community spent the year leading up to the move mourning the eventual sale of the Milwaukee campus. The money from that sale, coupled with the college’s endowment, would serve as what was sardonically referred to as the “Downer Dowry.”

Emeriti faculty members and graduates of both colleges remembered the years immediately following the merger as “fraught with frustration” and full of “ups and downs.” Atmosphere in the classroom and the collegial culture were different for former Milwaukee-Downer faculty members; of the 21 who joined the Lawrence University faculty after the merger, only 11 stayed. Students who transferred into Lawrence also faced challenges acclimating to the new institution. Familiar faces were present on campus, but they had chosen to attend an all-female college, and they now found themselves on a long-established co-educational campus.

While those challenges were not insignificant, we learned at least one valuable life lesson: a combination of two institutions, like the marriage of two people or the merger of two companies, cannot, if it is successful, represent one entity being subsumed by another. Rather, it provides a distinct opportunity to enrich institutional learning opportunities, culture and traditions. For example:

One can consider the curricular breadth of both institutions as one determines the course of the new university. The Milwaukee-Downer faculty members who joined the Lawrence faculty brought with them expertise in existing academic subjects like geology, art and music, and they introduced new areas of study like elementary education. The combination also added fencing and rowing into the athletics offerings. Today, fencing continues to be one of the 22 varsity programs offered by the university, and crew remains a popular club sport.

One can incorporate physical elements from the merged institution into the new host campus. On the Appleton campus, Milwaukee-Downer grandfather clocks became beloved fixtures in many buildings. A large sundial was relocated to the southern facade of the campus’s most iconic building, and an entire room of furniture and cladding was placed in a hall named for a prominent Milwaukee-Downer College figure.

One can maintain traditions from both institutions. At Lawrence, the Milwaukee-Downer tradition of assigning class colors co-exists with the Lawrence tradition of the president greeting each first-year student individually. Our current students view class colors as an integral part of the Lawrence experience, while our Milwaukee-Downer alumnae see it as a deep connection to their collegiate legacy.

One can steward institutional legacies. Milwaukee-Downer alumnae and faculty members have a passionate commitment to the ideals of their alma mater, and their unwavering advocacy on its behalf has ensured that their original college is much more than a memory. In addition to physical elements and ongoing traditions, Milwaukee-Downer’s legacy is recognized through endowed chairs and scholarships, as well as an annual alumni award. Milwaukee-Downer alumnae take pride in these and other ongoing contributions and regularly reach out to their beneficiaries, as well as their current president, helping us to embrace and fully appreciate all that the combination has done for both institutions. Contrary to the belief that Lawrence College would change in name only following the consolidation, we are undeniably stronger, together, today.

Over more than 50 years, we have found at Lawrence that mergers take work, focus and energy, like any combination of two distinct entities. And they can strengthen the resulting institution in ways that ensure its future. As the pressures on colleges and universities increase, such insurance may provide an essential option to preserve the vision and mission that animate an institution of higher education.

Share Article

Mark Burstein is president of Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis.


Mark Burstein

Back to Top