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No merger, but St. Bonaventure and Hilbert officials say talks ‘made us better stewards’

As the pool of potential college students dries up, the pressure on colleges to cut costs intensifies. But even against that backdrop, St. Bonaventure University and Hilbert College decided this week they would be better off moving forward as two separate institutions instead of combining into one.

The possibility of a merger had been discussed for about 18 months. Even with the potential for increased efficiencies and economies of scale, the complexities of “full integration” – the phrase leaders from both campuses preferred to use – proved too much to overcome.

In particular, the boards of trustees disagreed on how a merged entity would be governed.

“Ultimately, we could not get to the same conclusions in terms of the governance structure,” said Cynthia A. Zane, president of Hilbert.

In interviews on Saturday, leaders from the schools declined to spell out the details of those differences. They emphasized the exploration had been beneficial for both institutions, even if it didn’t result in a dramatic change.

Raymond Dee, chairman of the St. Bonaventure board of trustees, said the complexities inherent in academia made merger talks far more difficult than in the business world.

“We had to get through things like the financial issues, academic issues, structural issues, athletic issues, and we had to get through those in a confidential way,” Dee said.

A merger wasn’t necessarily the ultimate goal of a feasibility study and subsequent talks between the boards, said Sister Margaret Carney, president of St. Bonaventure.

“We’ve been aware I think all along that there could be multiple end points to the discussion,” Carney said.

With 21 colleges and universities and a stagnant population, Western New York is as challenging a market as any for higher education institutions. Many area colleges have struggled in recent years to meet their enrollment targets. St. Bonaventure had 2,244 students in 2013, down 7 percent from 2008. It laid off two staff members last summer. Hilbert increased its student body by 6 percent – to 1,057 – over that same time. But because both institutions are so small, even a modest year-to-year decline can have damaging financial impacts.

The decision by Hilbert and St. Bonaventure not to merge came on the heels of an announcement earlier this month that Sweet Briar College, an all-women’s college near Lynchburg, Va., would close at the end of the semester, due to what its board chairman labeled “insurmountable” financial challenges.

Despite enrollment challenges, Zane and Carney said their institutions remained on strong financial footing. Efforts to increase their enrollments were ongoing and separate from any merger talks.

St. Bonaventure, for example, focused on rebuilding its presence in Northern New Jersey, Long Island and Connecticut, historically strong recruiting regions.

“We lost some traction in those areas,” Carney said. “For decades, we had lots of students coming from those areas.”

The university’s participation in the Atlantic 10 athletic conference also raised its profile in areas that are home to other Atlantic 10 schools.

“Every member of our conference looks at the conference map as an enrollment map,” Carney said.

Hilbert, too, planned to use its Division III athletic program as more of a recruiting tool, Zane said.

Hilbert also bolstered its agreements with two-year colleges to make transfers easier.

One tangible benefit of the 18 months of talks is the development of at least one joint-degree program that the schools plan to submit to the state Education Department for approval in May, with a potential launch in the fall of 2016. The proposed program would use faculty from both campuses to teach courses in criminology and computer science for a forensic science degree.

The discussions also helped trustees learn more intimately how their respective institutions operate, Carney said.

“Our trustees say this has made us better stewards,” she said.

The two schools, which share Franciscan heritages, have had a partnership for 20 years. St. Bonaventure, located in Cattaraugus County near Olean, offers weekend graduate courses on the Hilbert campus on South Park Avenue in Hamburg. Several dozen potential students were at the Hilbert campus Saturday afternoon to learn more about the program during an open house.

Zane and Carney pledged to try and expand collaboration, but they said they wouldn’t speculate on whether merger talks would be revived in the future.