Five years ago, we launched the High Meadows Graduate School of Teaching and Learning, a new institution focused on competency-based STEM teacher preparation. Envisioned as both a graduate school and a design lab, High Meadows sought to develop, pilot, and launch innovations in education. Our goal was to create a proof of concept that could prove transformative both for individual institutions and for teacher education more broadly. The program attracted interest nationally and internationally from many in the field, who saw in our program a compelling vision of innovation in educator training and development. More importantly, we graduated teachers who were not only exceptionally competent in the schools that hired them but who also had the agility to respond with confidence to unforeseen circumstances – precisely the kind of teachers the schools of the future require.
While we knew that we had developed an effective model of teaching and learning, we realized that we could not sustain it with the resources available to us. High Meadows had not yet achieved accreditation status, which meant that students could not access subsidized student loans to defray the cost of their education. In addition, our STEM focus limited the pool of prospective candidates, making it difficult to recruit enough students to make High Meadows financially viable without significant and ongoing philanthropic support.
The pandemic, which exacerbated recruitment challenges, made clear to us that we needed to change our model; it also suggested the directions we ought to pursue. We decided to expand our market by providing not only pre-service teacher preparation but also professional learning for in-service teachers. We also recognized that any such offering should be primarily or exclusively on-line. Therefore, starting in the summer of 2021, we began to develop a new, entirely on-line only master’s degree program in Justice, Equity, Design and Innovation for in-service teachers from all disciplines.
We were confident of our staff’s ability to create a quality program that would meet both our needs and those of practicing teachers. However, we knew that this pivot would require significant resources to launch and scale. Therefore, in consultation with our Board, we concluded that we either needed to find a partner to merge with or close the Graduate School. We began some confidential conversations with a few regional institutions that had shown interest in our programs, but soon sought help from a consultant to expand our pool and to develop a detailed prospectus for review. Board members and the leadership team also reached out to contacts to spread the word and gauge interest in bringing our programs to their institutions.
The search process yielded an initial pool of over two dozen institutions of higher education. Over the course of a year, we winnowed the list and ultimately consummated an arrangement where the University of Kansas acquired all of our programs and hired eight of our faculty and staff to continue the work we began.
We offer these learnings from our experience that may be instructive for other universities or organizations seeking an institutional partner to build a new future.
- People are as important as programs in planning for the future. Even as you focus on securing our programs, it is critical to attend to the needs of students and staff. We made sure that our students could complete their program of study and worked to provide clarity and security to faculty and staff about their immediate futures so that they could support our students and continue program redesign. We met frequently with members of our board to inform them of our progress and solicit their advice and feedback on the pool. The board generously provided the runway necessary to complete the process and an orderly closure of the institution.
- Don’t compromise your values and principles. In identifying and ultimately closing a “deal,” it is critical that the prospective partner believes in your mission and doesn’t just see you as a financial transaction. This will also be important to staff who make the move to the acquiring entity and will be important in the transition process.
- Identify and work with a consultant who has experience managing the merger and acquisition process. A good consultant can help present your institution effectively to multiple audiences, nail down the financials, coach your team for presentations, work with board members to draw on their expertise appropriately, and hold your hand through the inevitable ups and downs. A consultant can also speak to the educational marketplace, and help staff understand external financial constraints.
- Your “pool” of most interested potential partners may likely come from your own extended list of contacts, colleagues and collaborators. While a consultant can help with the analytics to create a wide range of prospects, don’t underestimate the importance of relationships that board members, and the leadership team have with various institutions and organizations.
- You can’t over communicate, either with your staff or with potential partners. While some information must remain confidential in order to bring a deal to fruition, transparency assuages staff members’ concerns about the institution’s future and builds trust with a prospective acquiring entity. It is important to schedule regular updates, even if the update is that there isn’t any news. It will allow you to hear what people are thinking and head off any issues before they become problems.
- Plan for cultural integration. Work with the acquiring entity to ensure that the merger and acquisition process is more than just a transfer of institutional or program ownership. Successful integration requires careful planning through implementation. Be sure that the work will receive the resources and attention it deserves to become part of the new institution.
- Learn to let go. Recognize that the acquiring entity will transform what you have created in ways you did not anticipate and which you cannot control. For leaders who are deeply committed to their institution’s mission and have devoted a significant part of their professional lives to building an organization, this can be a challenge. But it’s a necessary step for the institution or program to flourish in a new environment.
Author Bios: Deborah Hirsch served as President of High Meadows Graduate School and Peter Laipson as Chief Academic Officer.