Education has been called a passport to the future, but the future of higher education in the US is steadily becoming uncertain. As the 2026 college enrolment cliff approaches, it’s more important than ever for universities to be strategic in their management strategies and clearly define their identities. Yet, in many cases, good communication alone is not enough to stabilise the precarious relationship between some institutions and longevity. On top of this, decreases in funding, the impacts of Covid-19 and more have sparked turbulence in higher ed, causing many institutions to close their doors or seek mergers.
But a merger is not a simple solution. While it can be a viable way to aggregate resources, expand outreach and reduce administrative costs, if pre-planning is not conducted carefully, a university merger can actually threaten the existence of the institutions involved.
To illustrate the complexity of the process, some sources compare mergers to an arranged marriage, noting the delicate components of legality, culture and finance involved. Going a step further, I argue that the road to a successful process can be considered through the lens of a healthy relationship.
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Relationships become harmful if one personality begins to overpower the other. To avoid similar institutional attrition, universities should conduct a pre-merger assessment, evaluating the size of institutions, cultures, stakeholders’ expectations and more. This represents the “getting to know you” stage that all abiding relationships must enter.
Perhaps most importantly, this enables institutions to determine if the merger would be horizontal or vertical. They say opposites attract, but in university mergers, opposites are not directly correlated with success. Horizontal mergers involve “mission-complementary” institutions of relatively equal scope, which have higher success rates. Vertical mergers are not culturally complementary, are unequal in size, are mission-diverse or all of the above. Because of the number of stakeholders involved, mergers in higher education are already more complex than business mergers.
Vertical mergers are not impossible, but the challenges must be recognised and adaptations must be made. This is where the importance of really getting to know one another comes back into play. For instance, if the merger will make increased commuting necessary, a strategy should be implemented to counteract the effects of commuting on health, cognitive ability and performance. Studies have shown that universities experience participation declines at commutes of 25 miles or more. Along these lines, commuting costs should also be evaluated as a potential barrier to access for students. Long-distance relationships require extra effort to last, but they can prove worth it.
Pre-assessment results should also be used to craft a blend of institutional identities. Compromise is necessary in an enduring union, but no party involved should have to eliminate key attributes to function in the relationship. Likewise in a merger, there is a greater probability of mutual growth based on the strength of integrated goals and visions; it is important that the core components of the individual identities be preserved. This requires strong communication from beginning to end.
Beyond surveys and archival research, it is imperative that leaders interact with stakeholders face to face. You can’t get to know someone on paper alone. Understanding the inner workings of the institutions will make a fair, shared vision possible and protect internal and external perception of the new university.
Semiotics suggest that every action of an institution – which programmes are offered, the frequency of communication, the books sold, the decision to merge, etc – is a sign; in turn, how the audience perceives the organisation’s signs are important predictors of its success. Your friend may tell you they like your new haircut, but if they buy you a hat and start sending you coupons for a hair salon, this may shift your previous interpretation. Just as perceptions fluctuate in the early stages of a friendship, the impact of semiotics is intensified in a merger process; managing semiotics is crucial in conveying what will be done and how it will impact stakeholders.
For example, as I found in my 2021-22 analysis of the merger, Purdue University Northwest was created by the 2016 vertical merger of Purdue University North Central and Purdue University Calumet. A lack of pre-merger planning combined with what some deemed to be a pattern of poor communication during its management has dominated public perception, jeopardising trust in and across the institution and raising issues of continued viability for both institutions.
This demonstrates the interconnectedness of communication, trust, organisational culture and adaption to change. Alterations such as a move or a new job can be relational hurdles, but if trust is high, the relationship will have the strength to navigate them, while doubt can triple the likelihood of a crash. In other words, low morale can cause a merger to fail before it is even complete – employees and students are driving forces of enrolment through word of mouth, research and community involvement; institutional leaders must value their input in the merger process.
This will ultimately help retain students. Even when conditions are stable, many students find university expectations unclear, often failing to complete their degree as a result. Add in disruptions and this ambiguity increases; institutions need to develop incentives to combat these challenges. Students will not be motivated to stay at university if they don’t feel valued. Even on commuter campuses, cultivating a caring, encouraging atmosphere leads to students’ sense of belonging, enhancing persistence. In any relationship, you’re more likely to reciprocate the effort being shown to you.
Along the same lines, institutional leaders impact organisational culture by modelling motivational behaviours, in turn creating vibrant organisations of employees with the common goal of a successful institution. Leadership should begin the merger as directive (for example, demonstrate that the pre-assessment was completed, acknowledge the cultures involved, communicate the path to success) but as the process unfolds, the leadership style at the top should evolve with it, becoming increasingly open to stakeholder input to stimulate positive morale, loyalty and trust.
Collectively, institutions need to recognise that actions speak louder than words. A positive brand is built gradually, but distrust can be instantaneous. Mistakes and setbacks are likely to happen along the way, but leaders should step away from external blame, prioritise transparency and devote energy to decisions beyond “operational efficiency” (choices based only on finances), emphasising a “human voice” of mutual interaction.
First impressions set the tone for the entirety of a relationship, good or bad. Considering these factors in totality for a merger process will maximise efficiency and make it possible for institutions to have a thriving relationship with stakeholders and success.
Kayla Vasilko is a graduate administrative professional and teaching assistant at Purdue University and Purdue University Northwest (PNW) respectively. She has recently completed the first impact study of the unification that created PNW, and the study, titled How Not to Unify: A Sociological and Semiotic Analysis of a University Merger, Perceived Actions, and the Resulting Impact, is currently under consideration at an academic journal.
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