When a campus merger falls apart

For years I’ve been forecasting more mergers in higher education.

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I never said they’d be easy to do.

Case in point: this summer I noted that Marlboro College in Vermont agreed to merge with the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut.   This week that attempt at a union fell apart.

What happened?

The Inside Higher Ed article doesn’t provide anything from Bridgeport, besides a quiet, abstract comment from president Laura Skandera Trombley: “moving through the months of negotiations, we became increasingly concerned and decided that it was probably in our best interest to withdraw.”  Concerned about what?  “Trombley declined to elaborate.”

Marlboro’s president, Kevin Quigley, had more to say.  Listen closely to this passage:

“We were really attracted by the compelling vision that Bridgeport had for us, but despite our repeated efforts to understand how that vision would be implemented programmatically and financially, we really never got any details over three months of negotiations. We wanted to understand how Marlboro endures.”

How the college endures: recall that Marlboro is much, much smaller than Bridgeport.  Marlboro taught 150 students, while 5434 take classes in Bridgeport.  We can infer that there were questions about how the smaller institution would exist within the larger.  Think of traditions, reputation, governance, habits, identity – and how all of that could be dissolved in the new entity.

The official Marlboro statement focused on those issues:

As the smaller institution, Marlboro College was especially determined to protect the integrity of its rigorous, self-directed academic model and self-governed community. In addition, Marlboro needed assurances on UB’s enduring commitment to the Vermont campus and guarantees that the wishes of Marlboro’s generous donors, who established the College’s current sizeable endowment, would be maintained.

We can infer that Marlboro did not receive those assurances.  Especially not over the long haul (“UB’s enduring commitment”).

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  Integrity: just how autonomous would the new Marlboro be within the relatively vast Bridgeport world?  Self-governed community: it sounds like Marlboro resisted being integrated into UB.

We could get even more direct.  What if a leading value Bridgeport saw in Marlboro wasn’t pedagogy or tradition, but real estate?  In that Inside Higher Ed article, Trombley initially applauded these things about the Vermont campus: “faculty exchanges, partnered courses and Bridgeport’s greater access to outdoor facilities — including Marlboro’s organic farm and 18 miles of cross-country trails.”  That’s a lot of nice physical plant, in addition to the (relatively) small curriculum.

Colleen Flaherty adds this: “Quigley said the ‘right partner’ may want Marlboro’s campus to be an immersive retreat or something similar.

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Some 130 acres are designated as an ecological reserve.”  Again, valuable real estate.

In contrast, here’s what a Marlboro professor focused on:

Rosario de Swanson, professor of Spanish, Latin American literature and gender studies at Marlboro, said it’s admirable on one hand that the college “walked away from the merger because it means that perhaps it was not the best for the integrity of our program and faculty.”

Program and faculty, not grounds.

We don’t have a lot to go on here, since so much of the merger discussion happened behind closed doors, including some NDAs, but these communications from all sides  sound like a shared sense of value in the lands Marlboro owns.  Perhaps that’s what Bridgeport valued most highly, acting accordingly, and Marlboro grew to resent it.  Reread this line in that context: “despite our repeated efforts to understand how that vision would be implemented programmatically and financially, we really never got any details over three months of negotiations…”  Perhaps those details weren’t as important as the prospect of UB owning a nice bit of upper New England.

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The merger failure may also involve problems associated with Vermont’s struggling higher education sector.  Flaherty notes what my readers know well: “Southern Vermont College, Green Mountain College and the College of St. Joseph closed this year. Burlington College closed in 2016. Goddard College is on probation with the New England Commission of Higher Education.”  Two other campuses merged to become Northern Vermont University, and now students, staff, and faculty there sound scared about what might happen to them.  Perhaps Bridgeport assessed Vermont in a grimmer light this fall than they did in the summer.

CTPost reports this statement, which seems to agree:

UB’s reasoning for walking away from the merger discussions was further explained by Trombley in a message to the UB community Friday night.

“As you are all aware, liberal arts colleges are struggling nationwide and the hardest hit state is Vermont, where they have seen four institutions disappear over the past year,” Trombley wrote. “While we hold Marlboro in great esteem, we have concluded that their challenges are too great for us to proceed.”

“the hardest hit state [in the nation] is Vermont…”  Did UB come to think of Marlboro as more costly than it first did, or even as a poison pill?

So what’s next?  Again, Bridgeport is silent, but Marlboro is openly ready about looking for new merger partners.  According to VTDigger,

The college had set out to find a potential college to merge with about a year ago. It ultimately received four written proposals, including from UB. Quigley said Marlboro, which is once again looking for a partner, would be returning to those potential merger partners.

“They’ve all expressed a willingness to pick up the conversation,” he said, adding that the school was also willing to talk to other interested institutions.

In a VPR post Marlboro’s president was open about possibilities, including closure:

“We’ve laid it out — our strategy of trying to do the best we can to make it on our own, to explore partnerships,” he said. “And if that doesn’t work out, and this is our far least preferred option, is to close but to do it in [an] ethical fashion as humanly possible.”

What does this tell us about the future of higher ed?

Primarily, that mergers are both appealing to contemplate, especially for needy campuses, but difficult to execute.  American higher education believes in a high degree of institutional autonomy, which makes it hard to fold two schools into one.  It must be harder still when the two would-be partners are so different in size: acquisitions, not mergers.

To the extent that we value a college or university’s distinct nature, offerings, traditions, and identity, it will be more challenging to merge them into something new.

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One Response to When a campus merger falls apart

  1. Keil Dumsch says:

    Closures and mergers will happen more and more, because we simply built way too many colleges and universities for a natural demand to sustain. John D. Rockefeller and HL Mencken made this point 100 years ago, and Jeffrey Selingo of the Washington Post makes it today. In addition, too many were built in remote areas that are not accessible. Claudia Dreifus and Richard Hacker have mentioned this. I like the idea of a small rural retreat education environment at Marlboro (Deep Springs is another), but it was always a questionable idea to locate a college in Marlboro, VT.

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