Achieving the Effective On-Campus Merger

What can a business school achieve by merging separate faculties on one campus into one college? If all goes to plan, more efficient operations, a more distinct brand, and a more collaborative and unified community.

Perfect Union

LIKE ANY TEAM or organization, a business faculty can be said to be more than the sum of its parts. But what if the activities of the parts in question clearly complement one another, but currently do not operate as part of a single integrated community? What if they are functioning as completely separate schools? In this case, an institution might decide to disrupt the status quo and combine them into a single unit.

As higher education institutions cope with greater competition and shrinking budgets, they increasingly are seeking to improve the efficiency of their programs. Merging multiple departments, faculties, or colleges can allow an institution to reinforce internal strengths, eliminate redundancies, and maximize resources. However, just because complementary departments are part of the same university does not mean that their integration will be smooth sailing. Each community has its own history, culture, and traditions. Any university must consider these factors before bringing two units together into one.

We recently asked two deans to describe their experiences with on-campus mergers that resulted in new business schools at their universities. Lynne Richardson of the University of Mary Washington (UMW) College of Business in Fredericksburg, Virginia, smoothed out the rough edges of a merger of business school faculties on geographically distant campuses. Soumitra Dutta of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, helped lead the integration of three previously autonomous schools.

The process of merging on-campus entities can involve managing people, mending fences, and navigating a complex interaction of disparate stakeholders, say Dutta and Richardson. But when different personalities and priorities are carefully taken into account, they emphasize, a university can achieve its ultimate objective: to create a stronger, more cohesive business school that’s ready to tackle complex 21st-century challenges.

TWO CAMPUSES,  TOO MANY FACULTY

When Lynne Richardson became dean of UMW’s College of Business in 2011, the university had just merged the business faculty on its Fredericksburg and Stafford campuses the year before, establishing its new College of Business in the process. UMW administrators had appointed an interim dean to handle the transition and the creation of the new college. After just four months, however, the interim dean urged the school to hire a new dean externally.

The problem was one of trust, says Richardson. “He had been a member of the faculty on the Fredericksburg campus, and many from Stafford believed he was ‘playing favorites,’” she explains. Another problem? Professors were still teaching on separate campuses, and the university had created few if any opportunities for the two groups to interact.

Before she took the job, Richardson reached out to Christopher Puto, then at the Opus College of Business at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, Minnesota. After having been through a similar experience, he offered her two pieces of advice: First, move the Stafford faculty to offices on the main campus, and second, get them to work together so that they would see themselves as part of the same community. “That advice made all the difference in the world,” Richardson says.

But putting it to work wasn’t so simple. Richardson quickly made sure that all faculty not only were assigned offices on the Fredericksburg campus, but also had teaching duties there. Even so, she says, the two groups still seemed to have a sense of “us” and “them”—they still had not established a sense of trust with each other.

The merger offered UMW a rich opportunity not only to design a more efficient program, but also to analyze every aspect of its programs and faculty portfolio.

The difficulty stemmed from the odd arrangement that preceded the merger. On the century-old Fredericksburg campus, tenure-track faculty delivered day courses as part of full-time degree programs, primarily to 18- to 22-year-old undergraduates. The Stafford campus, formed in 1999 and located seven miles away, was home to a very different culture. There, adjunct faculty on primarily rolling contracts delivered continuing education to working adults and veterans. Its degree programs included a bachelor of professional studies, as well as evening undergraduate business and MBA programs. Although these programs followed a business-driven curriculum, they were offered through the College of Education.

“This merger was not the faculty’s decision, and they didn’t want to work together because they didn’t know each other,” says Richardson. “That was the mindset that I found when I got here.”

In her fist two weeks on the job, Richardson had one-on-one conversations with each of the 25 faculty members to discover their personal motivations and outlooks on the new college. She asked them three questions: “What do you do away from work?” “What do you want to do in the future?” and “What can you do to make this the best business school it can be?” In that process, she also fielded their passionate—and often negative—feedback about the merger itself. Her challenge was to get them to share their perspectives with each other in meaningful ways.

That was when she had an unorthodox idea. At the fist faculty meeting, she set out a plastic children’s swimming pool full of sand, sand shovels, sand pails, and beach balls. She asked professors to find the pails and shovels in the pool that displayed their names.

“People looked at me with expressions that said, ‘What the heck?’ But after they took their seats, I told them what I had learned in meeting with each of them over the past weeks. I put up slides that included the negative words and phrases I had heard, without identifying anyone. Some people in the room gasped,” Richardson says. “I could see people start to squirm a little bit. Then I said, ‘This negative outlook is where we are. If we want to deliver the best experience for our students and achieve AACSB accreditation, we need to agree that we have to play in the sandbox together.’”

Richardson then asked them to take their shovels and pails to their offices as visual reminders of this goal. Although faculty still were skeptical, the message resonated with many of them.

Over the next year, the sense of distrust began to fade, as Richardson began to assign faculty to different programs—for instance, some who had been teaching undergraduates now were charged with teaching MBA students, and vice versa. Richardson also benefited from a chance circumstance: In 2012, the business school’s main building was torn down to make way for a new facility, forcing faculty to share temporary offices during construction.

As it turned out, faculty had to share offices for the next two and a half years as the new building was constructed—including Richardson, who shared her office with two associate deans. This situation, which could have been disruptive, turned out to be an unusual—and beneficial—opportunity.

“I’m not saying that any school wants to lose its building! But for us, losing our building turned out to have a great outcome that we couldn’t have foreseen when we fist learned we would have to share offices,” says Richardson. “As one person told me, ‘It’s hard to hate somebody once you get to know them.’ Sometimes bringing people together requires something crazy like that happening.”

The merger also forced the new college to address redundant staff positions and identify gaps in the curriculum. Richardson met with two associate deans and a faculty member to examine the current staff and faculty roster and compare it to what their ideal roster would look like. At that point, they realized that the college had too many management faculty and no doctorally qualified professor of finance. It also needed more professors of marketing, a central topic in the school’s curriculum.

As a result of this analysis, an extra office manner was reassigned to act as the school’s student support and outreach coordinator, and the school went from having two associate deans down to only one. Several management faculty were moved to different disciplines in which they also had qualifications. Additionally, as seven faculty members resigned or retired over the following years, Richardson hired fie new professors in finance and marketing, as well as the college’s fist practice academic. This strategy reduced the school’s full-time faculty roster from 25 to 23.

In an even more dramatic move, the college reduced its roster of adjuncts from 80 to just 11. One reason for the reduction, Richardson says, was that the new college eliminated the bachelor’s in professional studies to concentrate on its more traditional undergraduate business degree programs. Adjuncts now primarily teach specialty electives, rather than continuing education courses.

Another reason for this change was simply a matter of efficient—the school had too many faculty to teach a portfolio of programs graduating between 125 and 175 students each year. “When I arrived, we had adjuncts teaching classes of just three students, which doesn’t make sense financially,” says Richardson. “Today our average class size has grown from 19 students to 25 students.”

The streamlining didn’t stop with the size of the faculty. Faculty meetings, too, have gone from more than two hours fie years ago to less than one hour today, because participants now work together more effectively and make decisions more quickly. To support this collaborative culture, the school often holds community-building events such as holiday parties for faculty and their spouses. Faculty retreats for the College of Business are now called “faculty advances,” says Richardson. “We call them advances because we want to show that we’re moving forward, not backward.”

The merger, and subsequent faculty hiring strategy, offered UMW a rich opportunity not only to design a more efficient program, but also to analyze every aspect of its programs and faculty portfolio. This exercise allowed the school to hone its curriculum in ways that best suited its mission and future objectives, says Richardson. In fact, the college is now ready to pursue AACSB accreditation far earlier than she had imagined—the school recently was notified that it had been approved for its fist peer review visit. 

“Our culture is now self-sustaining,” she says. “We have a totally different faculty."

THREE SCHOOLS,  ONE COMMON VISION

Early last year, Cornell announced that its leadership would integrate three independent units—the School of Hotel Administration, the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, and the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management—into one College of Business. The new business school now includes 145 research faculty and serves around 707 students majoring in business from Dyson, 941 from the Hotel School, and 1,087 from the Johnson School—as well as more than 1,340 undergraduates minoring in business subjects.

Earlier this year, the school’s initiatives were further supported by a US$150 million gift from SC Johnson and its CEO H. Fisk Johnson. With this gift, the school has been renamed the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business.

The Cornell merger is unusual in that, within the new college, each school will maintain its own identity and be led by its own dean. However, the three schools now will work within a unified system of governance and will coordinate their activities and programs more closely as part of a single college. The integrated college also will work closely with the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, which had previously operated under the umbrella of the Dyson School.

At the time the merger was decided, Soumitra Dutta was dean of the Johnson School. Today, he serves as dean of the newly formed SC Johnson College of Business. He explains that leading up to the decision was a decade of study of what it would take to unify all of the university’s schools that offered business-related programs. At different moments in the past, various committees had recommended that the schools be consolidated. In 2011, the deans themselves let university administrators know that their three schools could have a much larger impact if they were integrated.

However, while studies indicated that it made sense to integrate these functions, it took time to overcome the legacies that had led to each school’s creation, says Dutta, who also serves as the 2017–2018 board chair for AACSB International. It was the late Elizabeth Garrett, who came in as the university’s president in 2015, who finally put the plan into motion.

“In our case, the deans of the three schools were already collaborating,” says Dutta. “But we knew if we wanted to do more, we needed to create a more integrated process.”

“Recognize that there are things you don’t know, so you might make mistakes. Be open to listening to others and to correcting course as you go.”—Soumitra Dutta, Cornell University 

To start the process, administrators fist looked at examples of business school mergers in the marketplace, from Arizona State University’s acquisition of Thunderbird School of Global Management to several agreements in France and the U.K. But these mergers weren’t quite the same, says Dutta—first, because the schools involved were not part of the same institution, and second, because many of these mergers came about because one or more of the participating institutions was struggling.

“In our case, all three schools were strong. We had the option of continuing as-is,” says Dutta. “But we realized the advantage of making this change by choice, rather than being forced into it.”

The three schools fist gathered information from their individual alumni bases, in order to gauge their perceptions of each school’s culture and contributions. The goal was to think very carefully about what kind of culture the new college should adopt. The deans did not want to dilute each school’s unique character, but at the same time the new school would have to have a character of its own, Dutta says.

The schools also formed a committee of faculty and student leaders in the fist six months of planning—its members discussed issues such as how the new college would manage its tenure structure and governance. “These were issues that we could not enforce in a top-down fashion. They had to be agreed upon from the bottom up.”

Before last summer’s formal launch of the new integrated institution, the schools held a large event to bring together faculty from all three communities. The university also set aside funds to encourage individual departments to gather their faculty for lunches or coffee. “At the time, their knowledge of each other was actually very low, and they had misconceptions of what each school’s strengths and weaknesses were,” says Dutta. “We knew they needed to slowly develop a sense of mutual trust and respect, so we brought people together in formal and informal events so they could get to know each other and make new friends.”

The biggest question was how each faculty member’s position would change in the new structure. Now, all professors are part of their school’s faculty, but they also have places in their academic areas within the larger school. For instance, a finance professor from the Hotel School is now also a member of the finance department for the SC Johnson College of Business. Academic faculty now work together within their disciplines across the three schools—for example, the newly merged accounting department launched a new master’s program in accounting this summer.

One hurdle the university faced was the skepticism of alumni who feared that their alma maters would lose their identities. Many passionately lobbied for their schools to stay independent. But the university was quick to communicate that each school would maintain control over its own academic programs—and that the merger would make each school stronger.

“The alumni were passionate because they deeply cared about the school, so our challenge was to turn their passion into creative possibilities,” says Dutta. Today, most alumni are happy with the new business school, and they have become more involved than they were before. “Earlier, alumni were connected to just one school, but now they’re connecting across all the schools,” Dutta says. He adds that many are even sharing ideas for the new college’s future within online alumni discussion groups and offering suggestions to its board of trustees.

As dean of the SC Johnson College of Business, Dutta oversees all three schools and works closely with Mark W. Nelson, professor of accounting and Anne and Elmer Lindseth Dean of the Johnson Graduate School of Management; Kate Walsh, interim dean of the Hotel School; and Lynn Perry Wooten, who became dean of the Dyson School on July 1. Nelson, Walsh, and Wooten report to Dutta, but all work together on an academic planning committee that oversees the entire enterprise.

The naming gift, along with other donations in the works, probably would not have been possible before the merger occurred, says Dutta. The integration of the three schools “allowed Fisk Johnson to see the new value that we created, which motivated him to name the new college of business,” says Dutta. “Even though the merger was challenging, it created new momentum and passion within the donor community.”

STRONGER TOGETHER

The transitions that Richardson and Dutta oversaw were comprehensive, overarching—and, at their heart, challenges to their schools’ established identities, traditions, and cultures. But a business school does not need to undergo a merger to achieve similar transformations. Any school, these two deans emphasize, can examine its operations closely to find ays to design more financially ound programs, create a more collaborative culture, or identify untapped opportunities.

Richardson offers his advice to schools that want to increase a sense of collegiality among their faculty: Realize that a dose of “tough-love” might be in order. “You can’t force people to like each other,” she points out, “but you can remind them to not lose sight of the school’s goals. You can remind them that they’re all professionals, and they all have to work together.”

She also recommends that schools discover very quickly whether any faculty or departments within their communities suffer from an “us versus them” mindset, which could be stifling collaboration and keeping programs from reaching their full potential. If that mindset is present, she adds, administrators should work very quickly to replace it with a sense of “we” by providing opportunities for faculty and staff o interact and giving them a common objective, whether it’s designing a curriculum or pursuing accreditation. “As long as faculty think in terms of ‘my campus’ and ‘your campus’ or ‘my students’ and ‘your students,’ there is going to be a problem,” Richardson says. “You need to mix people together and get them to work and interact in the same space.”

Dutta recommends that academic leaders examine their individual units closely to identify redundant programs that could be merged into other functions or activities—that is, elements that could be stronger together than apart. He also urges b-school leaders to look elsewhere on campus to see if other departments have complementary programs and missions. In that case, it could benefit all involved to discuss opportunities for a more unified approach.

Regardless of the reasons pushing change, he adds, it takes a great deal of courage, persistence, and humility for a school’s leaders and faculty to depart from tradition to create something new. “You must always recognize that there are things you don’t know, so you might make mistakes,” Dutta says. “Be open to learning from and listening to others and to correcting course as you go. Realize that you cannot mandate things.”

Most important, he adds, “big changes take time. No one can go in and take a sledgehammer to the current system and say, ‘It’s my way or the highway.’ But if you keep sending the right messages, choose the right people, and celebrate both your big wins and small wins, eventually others will understand the benefits of the change.”

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