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Hilbert and St. Bonaventure won’t merge after all

An 18-month courtship between Hilbert College and St. Bonaventure University has ended without a marriage proposal.

In separate votes Thursday and Friday, the boards of trustees of both schools decided not to move ahead with a merger of the two institutions.

The two Catholic schools began studying the possibility of a merger in 2013, as a way of confronting the challenging demographics and economics forcing small colleges across the country to re-evaluate how they do business. But their steps toward combining operations had been mostly incremental and exploratory, and the trustee votes ended discussion of a legal merger of the two institutions.

The two sides simply couldn’t agree on an arrangement that worked for both institutions.

“As we came to this month’s decision point, we arrived at different conclusions about the best way to structure an alliance,” said Sister Margaret Carney, president of St. Bonaventure, in a statement.

The schools announced the decision in a joint statement Friday afternoon and scheduled a news conference for Saturday. Neither Carney nor Hilbert President Cynthia A. Zane could be reached on Friday evening to comment further.

Hilbert, a campus of 1,100 students on South Park Avenue in Hamburg, and St. Bonaventure, which has about 2,300 students on its Cattaraugus County campus near Olean, agreed to continue to collaborate on “key strategic initiatives.” The schools share a Franciscan heritage and have had a 20-year partnership in which St. Bonaventure offers weekend graduate-level classes out of its Buffalo Center, on the Hilbert campus. Over the past several months, a working group of faculty members from both institutions developed a joint-degree offering.

The two schools have similar missions and “will continue to examine other collaborative academic program opportunities,” Zane said in the statement. The schools also are working together on marketing and website development, as well as a grant project on general education funded by the Teagle Foundation.

“Both institutions have identified collaboration and integration with other higher-education institutions as key strategic objectives, and we will continue to pursue options with Hilbert,” Carney said.

Last August, the schools used grant funding from the John R. Oishei Foundation to hire a former law school administrator, Teresa O’Rourke, to oversee continuing discussions and planning for a possible merger. And in September, the leaders of St. Bonaventure and Hilbert signed a non-binding memorandum of understanding confirming their intent to explore a merger with the goal of “full and final integration” by July 2016. Under the proposal, a single combined institution, with one board of trustees and one president, would have been formed, operating with two campuses under the name St. Bonaventure University.

Hilbert’s trustees met Thursday, while the board of St. Bonaventure met Friday and will meet again Saturday.

If both boards had voted to proceed with a merger, the trustees then would have had to negotiate the details and legal terms of such an arrangement.

But any collaboration going forward won’t involve any changes to how either institution is governed and won’t require legal approvals.