When we first learned of Hope International University’s (HIU) strategic partnership with Nebraska Christian College (NCC), we were skeptical to say the least. Indeed, we can well imagine that some folks within and beyond the HIU and NCC communities thought that the proposed transaction was misguided. After all, HIU’s main campus is situated in an urban setting accessible to a major freeway in Southern California, and NCC’s campus is located on a gravel road in a rural Nebraska setting.
That said, when we scratched the surface, we learned more about the common heritage, mission, and shared vision for mutual growth of the partnering institutions. This should be the logical starting point for any strategic partnership conversation.
At their epicenter, these two institutions share an affiliation with the Christian Church’s Restoration Movement and have a combined heritage of more than 160 years. For its part, HIU’s educational mission and purpose is to prepare globally-focused servant leaders – offering a broad and varied range of academic programs through its five Colleges. From a mission complementary perspective, NCC has focused on pastoral ministry and, as a result, has enjoyed a strong reputation in the Midwest for preparing pastors through its Institute for Church Leadership. Importantly, both institutions were committed to inspiring the next generation of leaders to serve its churches globally and impact the World for Christ.
HIU’s leadership team clearly recognized that this proposed strategic partnership could become a true marriage of equals – notwithstanding differences in scale and geography. This strategic partnership builds on the strengths of both institutions, elevates their joint profile, and makes good business sense, as both campuses will increase their capacity more efficiently than either could individually.Uniquely, in the beginning, HIU and NCC divided the partnership process into four phases:
- Exploratory Phase: The institutions became better acquainted through collegial conversation and agreed that the merits of the partnership satisfied taking the next step – i.e. executing a non-binding Memorandum of Understanding to proceed with the larger and more detailed feasibility study.
- Analysis Phase: A reasonable period of due diligence, data gathering, and correlation analysis to produce a unified and coherent proposal to the governing boards.
- Design Phase: Blending the two institutions by defining how the new post-transaction entity would be governed, structured, managed, marketed, and operated.
- Integration Phase: Shepherding the institution through the change management process, transforming both institutions into a Unified Hope System.
The May 2016 partnership between HIU and NCC exemplifies what can go right with a strategic consolidation. Beyond the obvious and prized result of a larger and more diverse student body, strategic partnerships effectuate economics of scale, efficiencies in operation, and non-duplication of faculty, programs, and shared administrative operations.
Adapt and respond
Developing mutual outcomes and milestones as yardsticks of success, this partnership boasts a long list of positive accomplishments. These include expanding the breadth and variety of degree programs offered, contemporaneously creating a stronger Christian higher education presence in both regions, and facilitating the best and most prudent stewardship of collective institutional resources.
At the end of the day, the partnership went through smoothly because both parties were committed to an honest, transparent, and inclusive process. Significantly, both parties committed the time, staffing, and resources necessary to present a thorough, comprehensive, and unified submission to regional accreditors. Both institutions were aware of the perils facing small, faith-based tuition-dependent institutions – institutions that lack nimbleness, unable to adapt to the tune of the times and respond proactively with a commitment to creative thinking, better practices, and rigorous academic programs.
Naturally, the partnering institutions tapped into the experience of expert higher learning strategic partnership advisors and consultants. This engagement of objective outsiders organized and facilitated the partnership planning process.
Over time, the campuses will utilize integrated planning, unified budgeting, and shared campus management systems; shared online learning and classroom technologies; and joint access to extensive library and learning resources. Now the unified institution will share recent U.S. News and World Report’s Top 20 West Regional Colleges ranking – named one of the 50 Best Christian Colleges in the U.S. by Christian Universities Online.
For other Christian institutions of higher learning contemplating strategic partnerships, here are several illustrative (though not exhaustive) takeaways:
- Scan the competitive environment
- Strive toward mutual benefit
- Know why you want to partner
- Honesty and due diligence pays off
- Build mutual trust and respect
- Be transparent and accountable to all campus stakeholders
- Know what each party is expected to deliver for outcomes and success milestones
- Scope out and share a common mission, core values, and operating principles
- Know strengths and be honest in addressing your areas for improvement
- Correlate and analyze the data collected in due diligence to consider a base case, worst case, and likely case scenarios
- Expand academic program choices for both campuses
- Expand the global presence of both institutions
- Promotes the best stewardship of finite institutional resources
- Engage a professional strategic partnership expert advisor and consultant who can facilitate the partnering process
- Move to a preliminary non-binding MOU once the parties reach a meeting of the minds
To sum up, HIU President John Derry put the partnership proposition nicely this way: “The strategic partnership between HIU and NCC moved NCC ahead by more than decades through regional accreditation, high-quality academic programs, online undergraduate and graduate programs, and access to managerial and leadership experience and expertise,” he says. “While there are inevitable costs involved in a strategic partnership like this, the long-term financial benefits, expense reduction, future cost avoidance, and efficiencies in operation are significant. Further, NCC gained access to technology resources and state-of-the-art learning management systems that would have cost them millions of dollars.”
James Martin and James E. Samels are authors of Consolidating Colleges and Merging Universities (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). Martin is a professor of English at Mount Ida College (Mass.) and Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance.