29.7.19

HIGHER EDUCATION DECLINES THE SAME WAY THE RAILROADS (AND BIG STEEL) DID.

It's not as if the decline hasn't been evident for at least fifteen years.
Now compare a news story from today's Northern Star, featuring the effects of an imbalance between spending and utilization (economists understand simultaneous equations, don't you see) in the College of Visual and Performing Arts. Professor Alexander Gelman, director of the School of Theater and Dance, notes, "In another year, year and a half, equipment will fall apart and faculty will be exhausted." Something similar happened to the railroads in the late 1960s: there was simply insufficient money to handle the routine maintenance, and the payloads got heavier and the tracks deteriorated and the trains moved more slowly, if at all. Professor Gelman, again: "Our faculty is very committed. Anyone can weather a storm, but if this sets in long-term, I am sure there will be exodus. Quality people want to work with quality equipment." That's what happened on the railroads, too. There are limits to how long people will put up with nights away from home in shabby hotels, and being subject to duty immediately upon completion of one's rest period, and it doesn't matter how many cute kids wave to you at the crossings or how well your students do, and in the universities everyone understands that the way to get a big boost in your pay is to get an outside offer.
Or that we understand how the usual nostrums don't work.
A common misconception among students, particularly business majors, and not a few practitioners, is that mergers allow the merging companies to achieve economies of scale. (Please don't get me started on "leveraging synergies" and "reinforcing core competencies" and all that other horsehockey wordnoise that passes for corporate speak these days.)

I pose a simple challenge to the students. Consider a steel company with a collection of dinky plants ("dinky" is a technical term meaning the plant has not achieved the scale economies available at the plant level) that merges with another steel company that also has a collection of dinky plants. Even the dullest least motivated among them quickly grasp that the resulting company is simply a larger collection of dinky plants. (This example works particularly well at Rust Belt universities near such forlorn hopes as National Steel and LTV Steel.)

Or, consider the mergers of weak railroads that many railroad managements saw as a panacea during the years of decline (1950-1980). A merger of competing railroads requires a rethinking of the system that often involves steep transition costs. (Penn Central is the worst case but by no means the only case. Union Pacific's troubles incorporating Southern Pacific come to mind.) A merger of connecting railroads simply connects weakness to weakness. (Norfolk and Western is not a counterexample. Virginian was a coal conveyor, and Wabash and Nickel Plate good at expediting freight.) Per corollary, that is a larger collection of weaknesses.
Let's include the New Haven in Penn Central, er, Marlboro College as the Vermont Division of the University of Bridgeport.
[Marlboro president Kevin] Quigley cited as two key issues facing Marlboro enrollment numbers and the discounting of student tuition -- which he hopes the merger will help mitigate. Marlboro will continue to offer its programming on its own campus, and Quigley said Bridgeport will create programs in which students in health sciences, engineering and business would have an “immersive experience” in liberal arts for either a semester or a full year. Quigley said Marlboro students will have the chance to take advantage of Bridgeport’s programs as well.

“We want to really prepare students for the future world of work. The idea is, let’s say a student at Bridgeport is studying something like engineering. You would benefit from spending a semester at Marlboro immersed in the humanities and the arts -- taking some courses in physics or chemistry -- but also having some exposure to Socrates and maybe do a course in dance or the visual arts,” Quigley said. “As educators we firmly believe that will help students prepare for the future world of work.”

Quigley said Marlboro’s process of searching for a partner like Bridgeport tried to model the one used by Wheelock, which in 2017 merged into Boston University in what was considered a relatively smooth merger. The number of mergers and acquisitions being undertaken in higher education has grown significantly in this decade compared to previous ones.
There is no management fad that ever gets past it's sell-by date.  Would you believe, an internal headline reading "1 + 1 = 3?"
Laura Skandera Trombley, president of the University of Bridgeport, is no stranger to small liberal arts colleges. She was previously president at Pitzer College, part of the Claremont Colleges of California. In a news release, Trombley said both institutions will benefit greatly from the merger. Bridgeport will reserve the greater of five seats or the number required to achieve 15% of the Board’s composition to include current Marlboro College Trustees, Trombley said.

“At a time of hypercompetition and swift change in higher education, our two unique institutions are demonstrating a new paradigm for colleges and universities of the future,” said Trombley. “In strategically combining the shared values, strengths and resources of the University of Bridgeport and Marlboro College, we are proactively ensuring an extraordinarily enriched academic experience for current and future generations of students.”
Business bafflegab, strategically spoken for ever and ever, world without end.  Marlboro faculty, however, come off more like long-term employees of New Haven or the Rock Island, expressing gratitude that they stay employed a little longer.

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