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Should Only the Strong Survive?

By Lawrence Stelmach and Allison A. Buskirk-Cohen

Strategic Mergers in Higher Education by Ricardo Azziz, Guilbert C. Hentschke, Lloyd A. Jacobs, and Bonita C. Jacobs. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019.

As its title suggests, Strategic Merg­ers in Higher Education makes a case for viewing strategic mergers as part of a solution to the fis­cal crisis facing higher education. Rather than considering mergers a last resort, the authors see them as “a tactic to be considered proac­tively, deliberately, and without fear.” Many higher education institutions—especially those with a thousand students or fewer—are facing an ominous financial future. The number of traditional students who enter college directly after high school is declining. Low unemploy­ment and rising wages make it attractive for potential students to work now and delay college—until the next recession. Regrettably, the authors of Strategic Mergers fail to deliver a cohesive text with a unify­ing voice that offers clear guidance for managing this crisis.

The book is marketed as a prac­tical guide for “change leaders,” yet it is difficult to move beyond the authors’ condescending tone and dismissive attitude. We remain uncertain about the book’s intended audience since the first chapter devotes so much time to insult­ing various campus groups. The authors dismiss faculty, alumni, community members, governing boards, and institutional leaders as “illogical” and a “detriment to higher education reform.”

The perspectives of the authors seem dated, despite their relatively recent experiences in higher educa­tion. Ricardo Azziz, who directed a merger in 2012 that led to the creation of Augusta University in Georgia, is the lead author. Other authors include Guilbert C. Hentschke, who served as dean at the University of South­ern California’s Rossier School of Education from 1988 to 2000; Lloyd A. Jacobs, who led a merger in 2006 between the University of Toledo and the Medical Col­lege of Ohio and who is president emeritus of the university; and Bonita C. Jacobs, who led the 2013 merger that formed the University of North Georgia and still serves as the founding president of that institution. The book is purportedly based on the authors’ analysis of more than a hundred mergers that have occurred in the United States since 2000 and interviews with more than thirty leaders involved in higher education mergers.

The book reads as though chapters were written by different individuals and lacks a cohesive vision or coherent voice. Although the authors write about the impor­tance of the “Five C’s of Effective Communication”—being clear, concise, consistent, compelling, and comprehensive—their book is none of these. Instead, the chapters are disconnected, and much of the information is broad and vague, with summative statements that are too general to apply to any par­ticular institution, let alone all of higher education.

The authors seem to forget that mergers in higher education institutions are driven by different motivating factors from those in business. In business, mergers are usually initiated by those directly in charge (CEOs and CFOs) with the approval of a board of direc­tors. All people initially involved have a direct financial interest in the outcome and have a fiduciary responsibility to the shareholders. In contrast, while the governing board of a college or university has a fiduciary responsibility, the board members should not have a personal financial interest; the continued existence of the institution is their primary goal. The financial goals of many mergers in academia are modest if you measure them, as a business would, using return on investment. A merger between a financially strong college or uni­versity and a financially weaker one results in disparate outcomes. The stronger institution possibly adds areas of study it doesn’t have, thereby enhancing its reputation, while absorbing the merged institu­tion’s endowment. The smaller institution disappears, resulting in the loss of its legacy and a cultural void for the community it served. We hoped that Strategic Mergers would provide a road map for navi­gating such challenges but found the book disappointing and frustrating.

The first section of the book presents theoretical and back­ground information on mergers, and discussion of how to man­age strategic mergers begins at its midpoint. There is nothing innova­tive about the guidance, however, and the authors’ discussion is not in-depth enough to provide meaningful assistance to those who might be involved in the process. For example, the authors acknowl­edge that cultural norms of an institution are critical yet also hard to assess. Why not rely on experts in culture—like faculty in anthro­pology, sociology, or political science departments—for support? Alternatively, why not consult those in psychology or public health departments to address the challenges of changing behavior? The authors of this book seem to believe that academic leadership should govern in a bubble, without viewing the components of an institution as interdependent units that can benefit one another.

Collaboration is noticeably absent from this book. Even if insti­tutions’ leaders manage to complete a merger, how can that merger be successful without the enthusiastic support of its campus communi­ties? The authors seem to rely on a command-and-control style of leadership, which is a poor fit for higher education, particularly when one considers the goals of success­ful mergers. (One might argue that command-and-control leadership is a poor fit for business, too, but that discussion is for another day.) Philosophically, this authoritarian approach to leadership conflicts with normative principles of shared governance that serve as the foun­dation of colleges and universities in this country. Shared governance does not mean that everyone plays a role in every decision, as the authors mistakenly suggest. Instead, groups in a campus community play primary roles in areas in which they have the most expertise and responsibility. Within a shared governance framework, decision-making and implementation are highly responsive processes.

The other problem with the leadership style advocated in this book is a pragmatic one. Command-and-control leadership often limits flexibility and creativity, both of which are characteristics the authors identify as necessary for strategic mergers. The final chap­ters of the book assert the need to involve members of the campus community in decision-making, but the discussion is superficial at best. If aspects of merger negotiations are closed, how do leaders build trust in the institution without transparency? With­out trust, will any merger stand a chance at long-term success? Chapter 6 presents an in-depth analysis of successful mergers, yet the authors fail to recognize that the elements of the merger evaluated need to be supported by faculty, staff, and students of the institution, not only by its leaders.

Merging higher education institutions is certainly an option for resolving financial crises, but we believe that mergers will have a limited effect on the overall health of the US academic system. Strategic Mergers provides a road map for solvent institutions to increase their prestige and pricing power through mergers. It enables administra­tions to stand firm against shared governance so they can achieve this power and use it to burden already strapped students with extra tuition increases. What is needed instead is a blueprint for institutions to increase revenue and lower expenses to achieve greater solvency. A book that could provide that would be worth reading.

Lawrence Stelmach is an associate professor and cochair of the Department of Business and Information Management at Delaware Valley University. His business career has included two years at AIG, eleven years at Air Products and Chemicals, five years at Fisher Group, and nine years at Johnson & Johnson. His email address is lawrence.stelmach@delval.edu. Allison A. Buskirk-Cohen is a professor and chair of the Psychology Depart­ment at Delaware Valley University, where she has been involved in program development. She is a member of the AAUP’s Committee on College and University Governance. Her email address is allison.cohen@delval.edu.

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