Unification case study

The unification of Johnson and Lyndon — soon to be Northern Vermont University — is now well underway. Over the course of this semester, Basement Medicine has explored various aspects of the process: the administration’s initial exploration of the idea, the perspective of the advisory committee, the vote itself, the Lyndon perspective, the naming process and the perspective of the campus unions.

Writing this series made it very clear that this was a very serious decision made by the Vermont State Colleges Board of Trustees, and certainly not one made lightly. That is as it should be, because Johnson and Lyndon are very distinct from one another, particularly in terms of purpose. Johnson is a COPLAC institution with a focus on the liberal arts, while Lyndon’s focus is on professional programs. For a unification of the two colleges to be successful, tangible value will have to be created for students and pitfalls that higher education mergers often present will have to be avoided. That’s no small task.

To that end, it is useful to examine the available academic literature on unifications in order to facilitate a broad understanding of the potential risks. Our research of higher education unifications uncovered a very interesting and relevant research paper entitled: “The Impact of Mergers in Higher Education on Employees and Organizational Culture.” The paper goes over a number of factors including different types of mergers, the effects on organizational culture, and a case study of the merger of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.

One key element emphasized by the paper is the effect of mergers on employees of the involved institutions. “Mergers and acquisitions have been conceptualized as stressful life events; in terms of the social readjustment rating scale they have been equated with the stress from gaining a new family member or becoming bankrupt.”

Apparently it is very common for mergers to occur without enough attention given to the emotional needs of the employees, especially regarding their feelings of lack of control over the process. Lack of attention to employees is cited as either the source of the failure of the merger or the reason that projected goals are not met.

Once the paper moved into the case study of the Minnesota system, it showed areas of flawed thinking that negatively impacted the merging process. “Another key driver of the merger was the concern over what appeared to be a fairly high level of intersystem competition. It was believed that the systems were in competition with each other because their funding was enrollment-driven and, coincidentally, the State of Minnesota was decreasing the amount of funding allocated to higher education, thereby fueling the competition even more. This led some policy makers to conclude that the structure of higher education was causing inappropriate and wasteful institutional behaviors at a time when the public demanded more collaboration and cost efficiency from the governmental sector.”

That excerpt seemed relevant due to the declining funding from our own legislature and the fact that the VSC institutions are highly enrollment-driven.

In the case of the Minnesota merger, the legislature itself hamstrung the process by not providing adequate initial funding, a risk factor that is also present in our unification. “The most difficult situation faced during the early stages of the merger implementation was the refusal of the legislature to provide adequate funding. In order to effectively implement the merger, the new system requested $60 million to properly integrate the three former systems without significant adverse consequences, but the legislature reduced funding for the new system. The insufficiency of critically needed resources sharply elevated the levels of stress, protectionism and organizational dysfunction within the new system.”

The idea of a merger was “seductive” to the Minnesota legislature because big changes appeared to be better. “The seduction of a merger can be enticing. The merger seems like the cure for the disease. The merger attracts the support of those more interested in achieving big change fast than in dealing with the hundreds of critical issues involved in actually improving organizational effectiveness in the interests of the students.”

It should be noted that “fast” here refers to a period significantly longer than the timetable of our own unification. Granted, the scale of the Minnesota merger was much larger: three entire systems and a student population of roughly 140,000.

This section was particularly striking because it very closely resembles the explanation given for the unification of Johnson and Lyndon: “The perception that merging would create cost-effectiveness through the reduction of administrator positions was proven to be false, resulting in mythical savings associated with the merger of the Minnesota higher education system. Prior to the merger, considerable financial constraints had already reduced administrative expenditures to the minimum levels required to maintain functionality. Other forms of cost savings failed to materialize as well. The only savings that can be attributed to the merger resulted from the closing of a few small programs.”

While it more likely in our case that a reduction in administrative overhead will actually reduce costs, the point about prior efforts to reduce costs should be heeded.

In the Minnesota case study, student complaints about the merger went unheeded: “The merger also had deleterious effects on the number on priority of the Minnesota higher education system, the students. The statewide student associations from the three former systems had opposed the merger from the beginning and became ever more critical as they received little attention in merger planning and implementation. Ironically, students, who as the ‘consumers’ of education are the main reason to have a higher education system, became alienated and the issue wasn’t addressed until halfway through the second year of the merger.”

In our case, students are better described as “cautious” than “opposed.” Our administration has also explicitly stated its intent to make the unification as painless as possible for the Johnson and Lyndon student bodies.

The public was left confused and uncertain about the Minnesota merger: “As a result of the merger, there was also a loss of support and enthusiasm from the general public for investing in a system of higher education with no clear vision. Due to the lack of clear goals and outcomes of the merger, the public was left confused as to what had actually taken place. From the public point of reference, there was a general lack of understanding of the benefits the merger was attempting to accomplish. The goals and objectives of the changes that occurred during the merger were not thoroughly identified and communicated. A golden opportunity to elevate public support and enthusiasm for efforts to improve higher education was missed.”

This speaks to the need for our administration to make the process of unification a well-publicized process with lots of information and clear goals laid out for the general public and potential future students.

The paper concluded with recommendations about clearly identifying a purpose for the merger at the earliest stages and identifying consequences as soon as possible: “[No] such merger should be attempted without clarity of purpose, a clearly expressed rationale for dramatic change and a well-articulated vision of what the new corporate structure will be and why it will be superior to the old structure. It is absolutely crucial to ensure that all possible consequences are identified and discussed prior to the merger, and proper management and communication techniques are identified, developed and deployed in order to carry out an efficient and effective merger of multiple organizations.”

In general, it would seem that the process of unifying Johnson and Lyndon compares favorably to the Minnesota case study. While the two campuses have their differences, their differences are not on the same level as the differences between a university and a college. What we should take away from this is that the success of the unification is far from a sure thing, and much depends on the support we receive from the legislature.