Current Issues

Thoughts on a merger with NHIA

Posted on August 16, 2014

On Monday, I will be visiting the New Hampshire Institute of Art (NHIA) as part of a town hall meeting in which members of the NHIA community will hear my thoughts on the proposed merger of SNHU and NHIA, ask questions, and share their concerns and thoughts.  It is a long overdue meeting.  In the weeks that have passed, there has apparently been a flood of theories, rumors, conjecture and the one earlier town hall meeting only seemed to feed the concerns and further confuse the matter.

In the audience will be three groups. Those who are in favor, perhaps a distinct minority at this early stage.  Those who are open-minded and want to hear more before they decide if they like the idea or not, I hope the majority.  And those who are adamantly opposed, though they have not yet heard directly from SNHU or had many of their questions yet answered.  I like to think I’d be in group two, but I’d probably be in group three. NHIA is a wonderful institution doing really good work with a culture that its stakeholders cherish.  What possible good come from a merger?

Lots, I think.  In retrospect, I wish I had been at the first town hall – it was unfair to ask Rick Strawbridge, NHIA’s acting president, to tell our story or take questions he could not answer.  If I had been there, current critics might remain as adamantly opposed as they are now, but it would at least be on the basis of good information and not conjecture.  First lesson learned: no one can tell your story as well or as accurately as you can.  So I look forward to Monday’s meeting.

I’ve decided to outline some preliminary thoughts here and my hope is that they will make their way to NHIA’s stakeholder community. If they allow us to more quickly set aside some of the concerns and misconceptions, we can devote the meeting to the more meaty questions, and they may also be helpful for those who cannot attend Monday’s meeting.  This exercise is not meant to address all the issues – I don’t know what all of them are at this point – but only the ones that have made their way to me thus far. 

Two important points:

My task is not to persuade people to support the merger proposal.  It is to outline as best I can my thinking and vision of what is possible.  If people don’t like what they hear, they should make their opposition known (I’m actually not too worried about any reticence given current social media buzz).  We can’t make NHIA join SNHU.  There is no such thing as a hostile take-over in the non-profit world.  Most importantly, we are not interested in going forward if we do not have the support of most of the NHIA community and my sense is that NHIA’s Board shares that sentiment.

There is no subtext and even vociferous critics should not second guess.  I will be clear on every issue where I can be and I’ll be honest where I don’t know or where more work has to be done.  No one has to leave the meeting with any “Do you think he really meant X or Y?” questions.  What I say unequivocally here you now have in writing and you can hold me to it.  The NHIA Board has been incredibly thoughtful, tough-minded (not afraid to ask me tough questions certainly), and very protective of the Institute.  A lot of the primary concerns I’ve heard are ones they share: about protecting the name and legacy, the quality, the culture of the Institute.  They are also my colleagues in the city and people for whom I have an enormous amount of respect – what I would say to them I will say to you.

Now the questions.

Will NHIA lose its identity?  Emphatically, no.  The New Hampshire Institute of Art has a great name, brand, and reputation among students, artists, the community—and all stakeholders. That is part of what we are attracted to—why would we change that?  The name will remain and we will seek to make a link to SNHU through the “small print” that follows.  Think something like:

 

The New Hampshire Institute of Art

The Arts College of Southern New Hampshire University

I may not have the small print language right, but it will be something like that.

 

Will NHIA lose its culture?  No.  The students NHIA attracts come in large measure because they want the concentration, passion, and particular culture of an art school.  They are not choosing conventional universities.  One of our goals is to get NHIA up to its 700 student enrollment goal and if we mess up the culture, we undercut our own efforts.  If anything, we have been trying to get aspects of that creative culture into SNHU to better support our blossoming arts programs.  NHIA does very high quality work and its academic and student culture is the intellectual eco-system in which that work flourishes.  We will seek to better support it.

However, I don’t know enough about NHIA’s administrative culture to know what, if anything, needs to change there.  Our culture is one that values transparency, agility, performance, and accountability.  We don’t shy away from hard questions, welcome dialogue, expect a lot from people, and we hold people accountable for doing what they say they will do.  We also score very high marks for governance, trust in supervisors, and leadership in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Best Colleges to Work For” surveys.  We would hope to see the same at NHIA.  We’d seek to bring those same values to NHIA if they aren’t there now.

NHIA will be swallowed up and be lost in a much larger SNHU organization.  Not going to happen.  SNHU has a decentralized organization model in which each academic entity is its own profit and loss center, has its own culture, and operates with a great deal of autonomy.  We have University College (UC), our traditional campus-based undergraduate program.  We have the College of Online and Continuing Education (COCE), based in the mill yard and serving a large population of working adults across the country.  We have College for America (CfA), our ground-breaking competency-based program, based just a few blocks away from NHIA at 1230 Elm Street.  NHIA would be a fourth entity.

Visit any of our three operations and you will find very different cultures, their own marketing operations, their own academic operations, admissions, budget managers, and more.  Even their physical spaces are different from one another.  The head of each reports to me.  The chief academic officer of each reports to their unit head with a dotted line to the University Provost, and they serve on an overarching Coordinating Committee where they share information, fend off any unintended conflicts, and leverage each other’s strengths.  In sum, we are very comfortable with this model and NHIA would not be lost or subsumed – we don’t operate that way.

What we will try to do is leverage SNHU’s greater strength in a range of administrative areas to improve NHIA’s operations.  SNHU has more robust IT, is installing new best-in-class financial aid software, has more purchasing power (from sheer size), a strong HR function (again, installing best-in-class HCM systems), and more.  Most importantly, given NHIA’s admissions challenges (it is far away from it is goal of 700 enrolled students), it would immediately benefit from SNHU’s marketing muscle and national brand.  We visit many more high schools, have robust integrated marketing campaigns, and have grown our own undergraduate enrollment by 1000 students over the last four years (while most peers have seen declining numbers).

NHIA staff will lose their jobs if a merger occurs.  That fear might be exacerbated by the preceding paragraph, a sense of “They won’t need me if they use their administrative functions.”  If we are successful in getting NHIA to its desired size, we will need more people, not fewer.  In our due diligence we identified no areas where we saw a need to reduce staffing levels.  If anything, NHIA’s staffing models seems pretty lean and maybe too lean. 

This is not the same as saying someone has a promise of a job whether or not they do that job well.  Our hope is that everyone is performing at a high level and then to better support them with improved systems, training, assistance, and having more colleagues.  We have hired 500 new full-time employees in the last twelve months.  Our challenge is finding great people, not finding ways to get rid of them.  It’s not what we do and SNHU has very low turnover.  This fear is unfounded.

Know that the key leadership positions are the ones that are critically important in our view.  Because our academic/business units exist in a highly decentralized model, there’s even more pressure to make sure we have just the right people leading them and that they are able to deliver on the agreed upon strategy, share our focus on students, and work well within the overarching team.  This sounds faintly ominous.  It’s not – it is just the simplest of truths and life is always better when we discover that people indeed fit the bill as I described it.  Otherwise, we simply incur more cost, time, disruption, and it takes longer to get things in order.

Faculty and staff lives will improve.  How so?  SNHU has been on the Chronicle’s “Best Colleges to Work For” top ten list every year since its inception and on its Honor Roll every year since they introduced it.  We have a Rolls-Royce medical plan (and employees pay only a 10% contribution), a 9% pension contribution, a dental plan, free tuition (for dependents as well), participate in an extensive tuition exchange program, and have recently added orthodontic and eye care.  We have the third highest salaries in the state (after Dartmouth and UNH) and our faculty and staff received 3% to 3.5% raises every year, even during the recession.  We would welcome a side-by-side comparison with just about any institution in the country.

 NHIA students will have to go to the main campus for services.  No.  All of the current services that students access on the NHIA campus will continue to be accessed there.  We are fanatic about student service and we will work with NHIA staff to improve and expand services.  We will work to make access to SNHU campus services available to those NHIA students who want them.  This includes everything from our Wellness Center to fitness facilities to music lessons to study abroad.  However, if NHIA students want to spend their entire college career without setting foot on the SNHU campus, they will be able to do so as if it doesn’t even exist.  That includes graduation, by the way.

 NHIA students will have to take courses online.  No.  This one actually borders on silliness.  While we make online courses available to an NHIA student who wants or needs one, as we do for UC students, that would be their choice.  This one merits no more commentary really.

 Will SNHU want to create NHIA art programs online?  We will want to explore what, if any, programs would lend themselves to an online format.  These might simply be offered under the SNHU umbrella and designed with assistance from NHIA faculty (btw, our faculty are paid extra for such assistance).  This is something to be explored by the academic teams at COCE and NHIA.

 Will we maintain NHIA’s and SNHU’s MFA programs?  We don’t yet know enough about NHIA’s program to answer this question.  On the face of it, it makes little sense to do both.  Though if there are significant differences and they appeal to different audiences, it could be desirable.  It might also make sense to simply merge them.  This is an area of exploration.

NHIA courses will be flooded by SNHU students.  No, though I almost wish that was our problem.  We will want NHIA’s eventual assistance in thinking about how to get more art and creative courses in front of students.  I believe that design and creative thinking are increasingly important parts of anyone’s professional education, that Finance or Justice Studies majors can benefit greatly, for example.  We’d also love to have art courses for the non-art major (making those distinct from the current NHIA courses).  That said, our challenge will be to get students from either campus to spend any time on the other.  Ask anyone that has remote campuses, even if within walking distance, and they will tell you that students stay close to home, to their comfort zones. 

SNHU will redirect NHIA financial resources.  No.  Any funds in the NHIA portfolio and endowment will continue to be used for the sole purpose of supporting NHIA students and programs.  It’s that simple.

 NHIA will become less affordable.   With a discount rate in the 20th percentile and “can’t afford it” as the most cited reason for not attending, we wonder if NHIA is actually doing enough to make itself accessible.  We pride ourselves on being more affordable than our peers, have different tuition rates for each of our units (so no need to normalize around SNHU tuition), have had no tuition increases in COCE for three years and very modest increases in UC.  Across higher education there is downward pressure on tuition rates and if we seek to get NHIA to its stated goal of 700 students, price increases would only undercut the effort.  There will be no big price hikes at NHIA if we go forward with a merger.

I think those are the major questions that have bubbled up to me thus far.  I look forward to Monday’s discussion and to answering other questions people might have for us.

Now let me step back and say a little more about why this came up at all.  To provide a little more context for Monday’s discussion and get the more exciting possibilities back on the table as well.  Simply, if we merge, most of the benefits in the first three years will accrue to NHIA more than to SNHU.  How so?

Finances.  Higher education is going through enormous change and stress right now, and small tuition-dependent, non-selective institutions like NHIA are the most endangered of all.  A pause here: “non-selective” doesn’t mean NHIA does not select its students or have standards, but they are not by and large the same students getting into the very selective art schools like Pratt and RISD that turn down far more than they admit.  An institution like NHIA lives off tuition and cash flow and while NHIA has a good size endowment for a school its size, it is highly restricted and not useful for day to day operations.  The financial reality for NHIA, at least as we see it, is fragile stability.  We do not think its Board would be in this conversation with us if facts were otherwise.

A merger with SNHU would immediately address NHIA’s financial issues.  Its federal financial aid ratios would be healthy, cash flow challenges would disappear, and there would be immediate improvements just from leveraging things like SNHU’s purchasing power.

Systems, Resources, and Expertise.  We are impressed with NHIA’s IT and Operations staff, for example, and how much they manage with so few people.  However, a merger would give NHIA use of new state-of-the-art systems, up-to-date policies, a growing compliance function (this is not now adequately addressed at NHIA), a strong HR operation, the full range of campus services and opportunities for students, access to a robust marketing and admissions operations (including a strong international outreach), and more. We are investing very heavily in our Career Center (more staff, a new center, and more) and this would seem a particularly important resource to bring to NHIA given today’s job market.  I’ve already covered compensation and benefits questions.

Innovation.  President Obama last year singled out SNHU for being an innovation leader in higher education and institutions from all over the country come to visit and learn (in the last month alone they included Harvard, edX, WPI, and Episcopal Divinity School, and others).  We can help NHIA think through what an art school has to look like in the next twenty years.  That does not necessarily mean abandoning what it loves best about itself or closing programs that struggle (like Painting or Ceramics – which may be worth doing because they are simply worth doing), but it does mean taking into account the changes underway in education, in pedagogy, in the arts, in the labor market, in technology, and among NHIA’s competitors.

For SNHU, the benefits of a merger will take longer to realize, something I have to remind our stakeholders.  For us, a merger will help us expand and improve our own arts programs.  We would want to access faculty expertise in a number of areas.  For example, we have Psychology faculty who want to explore creating an Arts Therapy program.  Our very popular Game Design program could improve through collaboration with NHIA faculty and departments.  We are very committed to community-based programs, as is NHIA, and we would want to see how we might work together to help Manchester.  We think there might be a desire for online arts programs, but don’t know enough about what would and would not lend itself.  We have an increasing presence downtown (with about 1000 employees in two locations), but like the way a merger would more emphatically affirm our place in the city.  We are interested in the way St. Anne’s Church might lend itself to being a performance space.  A lot of what excites us will take time to explore and nurture, so we’ll be patient.  But excitedly so, should a merger happen.

These sorts of mergers are devilishly hard to pull off.  There is often an existential anxiety and fear about losing identity and culture that often attends such discussions.  Alumni, who loved the place they attended, are often the most vociferous of critics (we face that too given all our change).  Students, who are at the institution because they fell in love with it as it is, don’t want it to now be something different.  Faculty and staff reasonably worry about their livelihoods and have pride in what they have built.  Boards can fall into a narrative of surrender or public failure.  Process, done poorly (and this one hasn’t been great so far), can also worsen the situation.  I don’t know if anything I’ve outlined above or if our upcoming discussion, will make people feel better, but I do know that NHIA’s future with SNHU can be one in which it holds onto those more ineffable qualities, retains its identity and a great deal of its autonomy, and ensures that its around for decades more. 

So, I’ll end where I began.  SNHU is not interested in moving forward without the support of the NHIA community.  I am eager to meet NHIAA students, to share what I’ve outlined here, and address any other questions they might have.  They are presumably at NHIA because it works well for them.  We need to hear what they value most.  Unless they are like no other college students in America, they also have complaints and things they wish were better.  We are eager to hear what those might be. 

We have no urgency and have attached no deadlines. However, we also have a LOT going on outside of the NHIA discussions, so we are eager to simply present who we are, what we think, what we know and don’t know today, and let NHIA’s stakeholders and Board decide how they want to proceed.  If the decision is to remain independent, we both have enough to do and we’ll cheer on NHIA as it makes its way forward in the coming years.  We have been fans for a long time and will continue to be so whether or not a merger happens.

Until Monday and our discussion,

Paul LeBlanc

 

 

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