Colleges That Join Forces Will Have a Future

Five schools in Boston's Fenway area have formed a strategic alliance that could set a pattern for higher education countrywide

How does starting the academic year by serving turkey dogs to 1,000 students next to a hospital parking lot in Boston represent the future of higher education?

If you're from New England, you may have read about the new "Colleges of Fenway," an innovative alliance of five venerable institutions nestled in Boston's Fenway neighborhood, not far from the famous ballpark. The grouping of colleges - Emmanuel, Simmons, Wheelock, Wentworth Institute of Technology, and the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Allied Health - represents a striking departure from traditional methods of delivering higher education to demanding student consumers.

These institutions are on the cutting edge of a trend to affiliate colleges, even across several states, to eliminate duplication of costly programs, achieve economies of scale, and, most important, provide enhanced educational services and professional development opportunities for students and faculty.

Sister Janet Eisner, president of Emmanuel, a Roman Catholic women's college, notes, "The colleges in our group had been working together for 25 years on traditional cross-registration and a library consortium, and it seemed to all of us the right moment to achieve a new vision for a 'university.'"

The presidents decided against naming it the "University of Fenway" because they believed it would send the wrong message to students - and to contributing alumni. Instead of force-fitting their faculties and programs into a shapeless campus conglomerate, they designed this alliance to provide the "creative academic resources that small colleges are going to have more difficulty providing to their students and faculty in the future," according to Marjorie Bakken, Wheelock's president. Put simply, these colleges have gone against the grain and designed a strategic institution that ends duplication and provides a small college experience backed by the resources of a large university.

Some have countered that these affiliations may work in Boston, America's most "college rich" city, but will they work for the rest of the nation's 3,500 colleges and universities? The answer is emphatically yes, since strategic alliances, consortia, co-ventures, and even formal mergers have begun to transform not only traditional liberal arts colleges, but also religiously affiliated schools, community and technical colleges, and even major research and land grant universities. Imaginative campus executives, activist trustees, and consumer-oriented students have joined a movement that has already restructured the country's banking, insurance, and health care industries in little more than five years.

In 1950, only 2 percent of the American population over 25 held bachelor degrees; by 1990, that figure had risen to 21 percent. Colleges and universities are being forced without maps into new areas of competition, challenged to conquer cyberspace while breaking ground for environmentally complex underground parking garages and hotel-quality residence halls. This year, many schools are hearing the call for 24-hour libraries and class schedules that start at midnight. These goals simply can't be achieved on old-fashioned campuses, already carrying millions of dollars of deferred maintenance. The future demands combined forces.

Consider the recent merger between little Lees College, a historically Presbyterian institution in one of Kentucky's poorer counties, and Hazard Community College. This represents an unusual blend of public and private resources. In the western part of that same state, citizens are looking into combining public and private institutions in a "Kentucky Higher Education Consortium."

In New York, one plan being weighed by State University of New York leaders involves a major alliance among most of the SUNY system's agricultural and technology institutions via televised curricula and services. In Connecticut and New Hampshire, state legislatures have voted to regionalize their community and technical college systems. Here in Massachusetts, the "Fenway Five" joins the "Worcester Ten," "Five Colleges, Inc." in Amherst, and new consortia emerging in the Merrimack Valley, the North Shore, and other parts of the state.

These alliances allow both urban and rural higher education institutions to enhance their libraries, computer centers, teacher training programs, and student support services. The latter are increasingly important. Many students now need an orientation course simply on how to "go to college" if no one in their extended family has ever experienced campus life. Alliances provide the diversity of personnel to accomplish these initiatives.

To sum up, if serving hundreds of students turkey dogs next to a parking lot saves five institutional budgets thousands of dollars each, and those savings can be directly applied to purchasing new connections to the Internet; building a shared, state-of-the-art physics laboratory; or lowering the cost of commuter parking, then more education leaders should spend a few days this fall calling on their neighbors - and bringing their own lunch.

James Martin, vice president for academic affairs at Mount Ida College, and James E. Samels, president of The Samels Group Higher Education Consultants, are authors of "Merging Colleges for Mutual Growth," (Johns Hopkins University Press).

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