How likely are campus mergers?

Are campus mergers a sustainable strategy?

A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article does a good job of explaining just how rarely academic institutions merge, at least so far.

Let me summarize the high points, then add some comments of my own.

Robert Witt (chancellor emeritus of the University of Alabama system, president emeritus of the University of Alabama) and Kevin P. Coyne (senior teaching professor in the Goizueta Business School at Emory University) start from evidence: “every college closure, merger, and acquisition from 2016 through the end of the most recent academic year — 163 of them across all types of institutions.”

Their analysis is that in two sectors – private and for-profit higher ed – campuses are much more likely to close than merge.  “Among private nonprofits, 55 institutions ceased to exist. Of these, 41 were closed, and 14 were consolidated through mergers.”  When mergers happened, they usually involved one partner with a very specific, very narrow focus:

fully eight of the 14 consist of small, highly specialized niche schools in such fields as music, the fine arts, and medicine being absorbed into larger nearby institutions.

These include such examples as the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies being absorbed into the Maine College of Art, the Bridgeport Hospital School of Nursing being absorbed into the University of Bridgeport, and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, being absorbed into Tufts University. Similarly, another one, Union Graduate College’s merger with Clarkson University, involved an institution that granted only graduate-level degrees.

Michael Coghlan, photo of merging railroad lines

What about public universities? “Public colleges took over many nonprofit institutions during this period (33) —but only other public colleges.

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”  The rationale?

Presumably, they were ordered to do so by their governments, because as a matter of public policy, governments do not close failing institutions. (As evidence, not a single public institution was listed as “closed” during this period.

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Overall Witt and Coyne are very sanguine about mergers as a campus strategy. “For most struggling colleges, the only route to survival will be through making optimal academic and operating decisions and implementing them with an emphasis on productivity and cost management.”

Some thoughts of mine to add:

Yes on public universities.  Closing one has got to seem terribly embarrassing to a state governments, a sign of failure or impending shrinkage.  Recall that Massachusetts set up policies to help mitigate the impact of closures.

Yes on the difficulties facing private colleges trying to merge.

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  I’ve written about this recently concerning a failed one in New England.

Let me put it this way.  It takes the reality or prospect of imminent financial disaster to bring a campus leadership to consider a merger.

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  That doesn’t necessarily make for an attractive prospect to another institution, unless the ailing campus has some unrealized strengths that the partner can embrace.

And yet.  If the current tide of pressures on higher education doesn’t recede, will publics drive state universities to pick up stricken peers, public or private?  Will well resourced institutions decide to acquire weakened campuses in gestures of goodwill?  If not, we should expect continued queen sacrifices and closures.

(for Paige Francis)

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2 Responses to How likely are campus mergers?

  1. Ellen Moody says:

    I have seen something analogous a couple of times. I’m part of one of several small 18th century groups that have a conference each year, and recently they’ve had trouble getting individuals to organize or run conferences. The large umbrella organization’s leader offered to allow this small one to join in for one (merge); it would have taken pressure off just for that year but this small group refused. A while back I saw two groups small unable to merge when it could have been to the benefit of both. The issue seemed in both cases one of fear of loss of identity.

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