High activity for higher ed mergers

Fall 2019 updates on colleges planning mergers, ending merger talks and moving forward from closure or near-closures

For the past few years, the potential for near-future closures, mergers and acquisitions has been high on the list of higher ed leaders’ conversation topics. Some experts predicted we will see half of America’s postsecondary institutions closing over the course of the next decade. Others envisioned a handful of closures but a surge in mergers and acquisitions. And, sure enough, related headlines have been creeping into UB and other national media outlets. This month has been a particularly busy one for news of colleges planning mergers, ending merger talks and moving forward from closure or near-closure.

Beginning the merger journey

On October 2, officials from Roosevelt University in Chicago announced plans to acquire neighbor Robert Morris University. The two institutions are no strangers to partnership—with the University Center residence hall for students at both schools as well as DePaul University and Columbia College open since 2004 and a 2019 announcement that Robert Morris students would occupy part of Roosevelt’s Wabash Building residence hall.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Roosevelt has submitted the acquisition request to the Higher Learning Commission. The merger must also be approved by the Illinois Board of Higher Education and the U.S. Department of Education, with early 2020 as the target for finalizing the deal.

Roosevelt would retain its name, although Robert Morris academic programs could be folded into a new unit called the Robert Morris Experiential College. The two institutions—which have both experienced decreasing enrollment over the past decade—are a fit, announced Roosevelt President Ali Malekzadeh, “because of our complementary programs, and inclusive, yet distinct, missions of social justice and social equity.”

As the Tribune also reported, this fall John Marshall Law School in Chicago began operations under its new name, UIC John Marshall Law School. It was acquired by the University of Illinois at Chicago earlier this year.

Halting merger discussions

The University of Alaska System Board of Regents, faced with $115 million in state funding cuts over the next three years (down from the original $135 million in cuts originally announced), was looking to merge UA’s three separately accredited public universities into one accredited institution. The controversial cost-saving concept is dead, at least for now, reported the Anchorage Daily News this week.

After an accreditor sent a cautionary letter raising red flags about the move and feedback from faculty, staff, and students, the regents voted 9-2 at an emergency meeting on Monday to “cease consideration of a single accreditation” until after UA Fairbanks’ accreditation is reaffirmed in 2021. If the group later decides to pursue the single-accreditation idea, they plan to start with directing the UA president to conduct an independent cost-benefit analysis.

Another halted merger is one that was further along and involving institutions in different states. As UB reported in July, leaders at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut and struggling Marlboro College in Vermont signed a letter of intent to begin the merger process. Initial plans were shaping up to keep both campuses and have the Vermont campus be known as Marlboro College of the University of Bridgeport. Bridgeport President Laura Skandera Trombley would oversee the single institution. Students and faculty would be able to have multiple campus experiences, one at the shore and one on a farm.

In mid-September, a University of Bridgeport statement indicated that the institution had decided to withdraw from further discussion with Marlboro. In an interview with The Connecticut Post, Marlboro President Kevin Quigley said that the talks had ended due to concerns around the sustainability of a merged institution. “As the smaller institution, Marlboro College was especially determined to protect the integrity of its rigorous, self-directed academic model and self-governed community,” he said.

In early November, Emerson College in Boston announced that its leaders are exploring an alliance with Marlboro that will involve the school to move its academic programs to Emerson beginning in Fall 2020. At that time, according to coverage in Emerson Today, Marlboro students would be invited to matriculate and tenure-track faculty may choose to teach at Emerson. Marlboro expects to close its Vermont campus at the end of the 2019-20 academic year.

Making final arrangements—or climbing back from the brink

UB’s March report on the agreement between Mercy College and the struggling College of New Rochelle in New York, which would result in CNR’s closure, noted that the potential use of buildings at CNR was an aspect of the deal that stood out. At the time, Mercy officials were exploring how they might use some of the CNR’s buildings by securing leases with that college’s creditors.

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That did, in fact, happen, and the 15.6-acre campus is being leased through 2020 by Mercy College. But as Bloomberg reported this month, CNR has $80 million in liabilities, including $14 million due to bondholders, and is now looking to sell the campus. If a potential buyer isn’t found by November 21, the campus will be sold at auction. The article questioned if the 19th-century castle and location 20 miles from New York City would be a big enough draw.

A happier ending may be in store for Hampshire College in Massachusetts, which announced in January 2019 its intent to find a long-term partner to help achieve a sustainable future. Two weeks later, the board voted to only enroll a small number of students for fall 2019 or spring 2020, those who had accepted an early decision offer and those who took a gap year instead of enrolling the previous fall. Layoffs followed, and in April President Miriam Nelson resigned.

But things started looking up in June, when interim president Ken Rosenthal announced that an historic outpouring of support from alumni and friends had convinced the board to admit a full class for fall 2020. The goal: save the school with significant fundraising and avoid the need to merge with another institution. By the start of the fall 2019 semester, things in the admissions office were back to full business as usual, with a relaunch of recruitment for full class in 2020.

And on October 1 the Daily Hampshire Gazette reported on the college’s three potential plans to reinvent its education model and restore a stable student enrollment. The models focus on project-based learning, addressing “big challenges” facing the future, and a student co-designed curriculum.

As November approaches, Hampshire aims to demonstrate its adherence to accreditation standards. Under the leadership of President Ed Wingenbach since August, officials are preparing their plan for reinventing its academic programs to the New England Commission of Higher Education and the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education. The future, the Hampshire community now has reason to hope, may well be bright.

Note: This coverage was updated on November 6 to include the announcement of the alliance between Marlboro College and Emerson College. 

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of UB.

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