Willamette finalizes merger with PNCA, gets $2M boost

The Oregon university and the Pacific Northwest College of Art will connect liberal arts and sciences with design.
By: | June 30, 2021
Photo courtesy of Willamette University

“The joining of PNCA and Willamette stands to elevate the next generations of artists—and their central importance in society—by reimagining what an arts education can be.”
– Philanthropist Jordan Schnitzer

Willamette University in Salem, Ore., sealed its merger deal with Pacific Northwest College of Art on Wednesday, officially bringing on board an institution with a rich history dating back more than 100 years in the development of fine arts students.

The new PNCA will remain in Portland and its faculty will remain intact, though its Center for Contemporary Art & Culture, academic centers and collections will become part of Willamette moving forward.

The process extended nearly six months beyond the projected timeline as both had to navigate workarounds because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But now done, the two are excited to share in their abundance of resources—Willamette as a strong liberal arts/regional university and PNCA as a still independent leader in art and design.

“After many months of hard work and planning, I am thrilled that we can celebrate the formal completion of this merger and welcome the Pacific Northwest College of Art into Willamette University,” said Willamette President Stephen Thorsett. “I am especially excited for our students, who will see immediate benefits as we further advance our plans for collaborative opportunities and cross-disciplinary programs that will be the trademark of this union as it deepens the connection between art, design, and the liberal arts and sciences.”

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The integration and elevation of PNCA under Willamette is being backed by a donation of $2 million through the Schnitzer family and Jordan’s late mother, Arlene, whose contribution will forge the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer PNCA Dean’s Initiative Fund. Willamette officials said they will begin their quest for a new dean to lead PNCA this week.

“We’re profoundly thankful for the Schnitzer family’s confidence and trusted partnership as we welcome PNCA into our community,” said recent Willamette Board of Trustees Chair Lynne Saxton. “The joining of these two institutions will create tremendous new opportunities for student artists and ensure that they have tools they need to leave a mark on the world through their art, at a time when the world needs them most. We’re so pleased that this merger is officially complete and to move forward with our exciting plans.”

In addition to their continued studies in the arts, PNCA students will now have access to Willamette’s business and science courses as well as connections to the university’s work around social justice, climate change and health.

Merger talks have been on the radar of higher ed leaders for more than a decade, but their exploration has accelerated over the past year because of the pandemic.

Private universities have executed takeovers of struggling institutions, in some cases to prevent closures and in others simply because the opportunity to expand is great. Willamette, for example, recently cemented a deal with Southern California’s Claremont School of Theology, and Northeastern University recently agreed to take over Oakland, Calif.-based Mills College. States are also looking at mergers more closely for cost savings and efficiency, the most prominent being Pennsylvania’s steps to consolidate six of its 14 state public universities. Oregon and New Hampshire are also looking into merging community colleges with universities in their states.