Chancellor Emeritus Spinelli Shares Merger Lessons in the Chronicle of Higher Education

spinelliWith merger on the minds of many higher-education leaders, University Chancellor Emeritus Stephen Spinelli Jr., PhD, shared lessons from the experience of the new Jefferson (Philadelphia Unversity + Thomas Jefferson University) in a June 22 commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Read the piece, “Thinking About a Merger? Read This First,” in full below.

Recent polls of college leaders have confirmed what many in higher education have known for some time — a significant number of colleges and universities are likely to close or merge in the next decade. Dire predictions suggest that, in failing to respond to economic realities, as many as half of American colleges could fold or become bankrupt in the near future.

These predictions may be accurate or exaggerated, but there is little doubt that higher education is in a state of disruption, and most likely approaching consolidation. The demographic changes in the traditional college population, the impact of technology, the high cost of attendance, rising student debt, and the resulting concerns about the return on investment in a college education are all factors.

This is not bad news for academe, unless keeping a campus open at all costs is the desired outcome. In this environment of disruption, there is also much opportunity. We can bring higher education into the 21st century to meet the needs of students and society today and in the fast-evolving future. Mergers and meaningful collaborations among institutions can and should create an educational ecosystem that inspires and enables lifelong learning.

When Philadelphia University and Thomas Jefferson University merged, in July 2017, people were scratching their heads. A health-sciences university with medical school combining with a design-oriented professional university that started as a textile school?

An educational philosophy driven by overarching values and pedagogy is the foundation of our merger. Faculty and staff members and administrators from both institutions are innovation-focused and forward-looking, and both campus cultures reflected a desire to be nimble, current, and creative. The two have equal numbers of undergraduate and graduate students, and we believe that the combination creates valuable options for students, and that the scale of the combined entity enables sound economics for the university.

With merger on the minds of many higher-education leaders, here are some lessons from the experience of the new Thomas Jefferson University.

Move from strength, not desperation. Focus your energy on differentiation. It can take many forms, in particular the pedagogical foundation and manner in which learning is delivered. Colleges that offer students the same kind of education they can get at a lot of other places will be among the first to fail.

Consider the continuum of collaboration options. Merger isn’t the only way to achieve economies of scale and provide a broader educational experience. In fact, most colleges should not merge. Explore options for joint programs, collaborative projects, and shared resources. Seek solutions that work for your community of scholars. Proximity may be a plus, but geography needn’t be a limiting factor in these networking times. Jefferson now has two main campuses, seven miles apart in Philadelphia, plus other national and international sites. It’s not as easy as being in one location, but it offers both urban and suburban experiences for students.

Look for complementary partners, not just similar ones. Philadelphia University and Thomas Jefferson University each enrolled about 3,700 students, but they had only two academic programs in common. Not only have we created value by offering more academic options — including every major that existed at both institutions — but we have not had to eliminate faculty or staff positions, although we have made reassignments.

Engage faculty early on, and be as transparent as possible. Not everyone is going to be on board, but frequent communication is essential — with faculty and staff members and students, as well as with donors, elected officials, industry partners, and other audiences. Early buy-in by many faculty members on both campuses helped us to communicate the positive aspects of the merger and create trust in the process.

Be prepared for accreditation challenges. We had to meet the standards of more than 30 agencies throughout the merger process, ranging from the Middle States Commission of Higher Education and U.S. Department of Education to the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The process was exhaustive and demanding — as it should be — and presented some of the final hurdles to clear before we could officially become one university.

Refocus recruitment efforts during the transition. Concerned about possible confusion in the marketplace, we used sophisticated market research and positioned the merger to differentiate the Jefferson experience from those at similar colleges. At the same time, we were faced with recruiting the fall 2017 class during a time when we weren’t yet sure what the name of the combined university would be. Our student hosts needed to be able to discuss the merger during campus tours. We were still changing signs on our East Falls campus in the few days before convocation last August. There were a million (or at least it felt like that) details that needed to be addressed — and we are still working on many of them.

I don’t think we will know for a decade or so how successful the merger is, but this year applications and donations are up, and students and faculty members on both campuses seem to have embraced the new Jefferson. We offer more accelerated pathways for students to complete undergraduate-to-graduate degrees in a shorter time. Students have more opportunities for research and professional clinical sites and medical researchers are thrilled to be working with design and engineering students.

In just one example, a surgeon specializing in injury research and prevention is collaborating with four engineering students to develop a safer youth sports helmet. And we recently established the Jefferson Institute for Bioprocessing, which would not have been possible without the expertise from both of our institutions. And so, even this early in, we’re seeing positive impacts from the merger.

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