Mergers are transitional and the transformation requires strong leadership throughout the institution. While it is clear that the Chief Financial or Business Officer must consolidate budgets and other financial instruments and the Chief Academic Officer/Provost must consolidate academic areas, there are some who overlook the critical role that student affairs should assume during a merger. As we noted in our book ‘Strategic Mergers in Higher Education’, a successful merger must include “a compelling unifying vision” and student affairs must play a substantial role in supporting that vision.
The ultimate role of a merger is to create one unified university with each campus having complimentary resources, even though there will be differences based on campus needs. Each campus may have student affairs staff already in place, and most will have established traditions and student resources on each campus including new student orientation, academic resources, and community-building opportunities. Each campus must be equally important just as each student must be equally important; yet, campuses, like students, may have differing needs. Of course, the lead student affairs officer must diligently coordinate student success initiatives across all campuses, preferably in collaboration with other campus divisions.
During the merging process, it is not unusual for one campus to learn that other campuses have successful initiatives that have enhanced student persistence and success on their own campus. The off-campus programming on one campus may be lacking on another. One campus may have had tremendous success with supplemental instruction while another may not offer it at all. Conduct codes, leadership opportunities, health center availability, community building, service learning, and information on student employment should be appropriately provided across the campuses. However, as colleges and universities’ primary mission is to educate and train students, it is not hard to grasp the concept that student affairs should play a significant role in creating a successful merger.
Campus culture plays a significant role in student persistence and success and, therefore, graduation rates. The initiation of a merger can provide opportunities to determine whether the culture on each campus is healthy and, regardless of the strength of the campus culture, what initiatives might enhance student success. Normed surveys can also identify the perception of the campus culture by groups of students. Transfer students, new-from-high-school students, and graduate students may have had different experiences and developed different perceptions.
On one campus where I once worked, I gathered data on the giving rate of recently graduated students who entered as freshmen versus those who entered as transfers. I was surprised to learn that the transfer students had a higher giving rate. Further analysis indicated that, because that campus had a large transfer population, it had developed a robust transfer orientation program, a transfer center, “transfer talkbacks,” and specific events celebrating transfers. While mergers, like other transitions, can be demanding and stressful, they can also provide an opportunity to discover new opportunities and initiatives that, in the end, lead to increased graduation and alumni engagement rates.
Although we should recognize the critical role that student affairs plays in ensuring a successful merger, it is clear that no campus leader works in a vacuum and that collaborative efforts are imperative. Likewise, student affairs leadership must not only be included during the merger or acquisition process, they also must be heavily collaborative. After all, they have much expertise to contribute toward enhancing student success and graduation rates. Because, after all, mergers are primarily about enhancing student experience, access, and success.
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Writer: Bonita C. Jacobs, Senior Consultant, SPH Consulting Group