Should You Be Exploring an Institutional Partnership?

Mergers, acquisitions, strategic alliances and restructurings:  University leaders frequently use these terms although they make many of us acutely uncomfortable.  For some, they suggest we aren’t advancing our distinctive educational mission, we are falling short in serving our people, and most starkly:  our beloved institution is failing. 

But here we are.  Demographics, economics, and public health issues, among other factors, are   working against our best-laid plans and aspirations. Far more presidents than any of us would want are in shoes similar to the ones I wore at Marlboro College.  Our circumstances required asking very difficult existential questions:  can we make it on our own?  If not, should we close or find a partner who values our mission, programs and people?  

For me, closing was a most unappealing option.  If you are in challenging circumstances and you have thought you would do anything to avoid closure, a crucial question is how do you and other university leaders realize that pursuing a partnership is your best option and far preferable to closure?

Most importantly, you must have a clear-eyed, non-sentimental understanding of exactly what your circumstances are.  This understanding must be shared with and then held by key stakeholders, starting with your board of trustees but extending to other stakeholder groups.  

This clear-eyed understanding involves knowing your competitive position, as well as your enrollment and operating budget trends. It is essential that you have an unvarnished view of your institution’s financial and competitive circumstances.  Easy barometer readings of that are:   

1) net asset position;

2) net endowment position (endowment minus debt); and

3) enrollment trends compared with benchmark schools.  

Before launching a partnership search process, you should have a very clear picture about the long term outlook for your institution. For example, are you in a short-term crunch that might be difficult but manageable for a few years, or are the environmental conditions that drive your enrollments and revenues likely to continue, worsening your circumstances?  You should also be asking does your campus have the creativity, motivation and courage to envision a completely different future?  

You also need to determine what you want in a partner and what would make you an attractive partner.  For example, what assets do you have (e.g. a sizable endowment, an award-winning program, a particular effective technology, or a valuable campus in a desirable location) that might appeal to a potential partner?  How will what you bring to the table enhance your potential partner’s educational activities, reputation and prospects?

Finding the right partner is not an easy task and not every institution has the appetite or culture to pursue this strategy.  You also will need to recognize that, if your institution is facing an existential crisis, ideas emanating from brainstorming sessions in the midst of a crisis are not enough; they are likely to be too little and too late. Given that, change is required.  And change is hard and scary.  Your organizational culture needs to be truly ready for transformative change and to do the hard work necessary to make that happen.

Far too often, college leaders and key stakeholders are slow in facing the facts that their eroding circumstances are narrowing their options.  They are reluctant to recognize that finding a partner is the best future course for their beloved institution. This reluctance may mean that the institution no longer has sufficient resources to make a partnership work when they need it most.

Be in the vanguard of presidents open to any and all solutions. Trusted, confidential counsel is available.  I wish you the very best in all of your important work and understand that the options you have may not be the options you envisioned when assuming your leadership role. Despite that, your campus community and the higher education sector require your very best efforts.

Kevin F. F. Quigley

Past President, Marlboro College, now merged with Emerson College
Consultant, Dutcher LLC