Nine insights from an integration process (opinion)

[Inside Higher Ed] Nine insights from an integration process (opinion)

In March 2021, the chair of the Board of Trustees of Becker College announced that the institution would close its doors due to financial difficulties accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a blow to the students, faculty and staff of this private college in Worcester, Mass., which traced its history to the union of Leicester Academy, founded in 1784, and the Becker Business College, which opened in 1887. It also was a serious loss for the Worcester region because of Becker College’s long and impactful history in the area and the prominence of several academic programs.

Clark University had been a neighbor to Becker for nearly 135 years. The two institutions shared both history and a deep connection to the Worcester community. Clark’s leadership was determined help soften the blow, especially for students who needed continuity of learning to finish their degrees. This was the beginning of plans—announced by Clark president David Fithian—to establish the Becker School of Design & Technology (BSDT) at Clark, keeping intact Becker’s nationally ranked interactive media design and gaming programs. Ultimately, the transfer of programming was governed by a memorandum of understanding signed by the Becker College Board of Trustees. The proposed substantive change was approved by Clark’s accreditor, the New England Commission of Higher Education, in April 2021.

In August 2021, the BSDT began its first semester as part of Clark University, with classes held in two leased buildings on the former site of the Becker College campus. A total of 179 undergraduate students enrolled in 40 sections representing 27 unique courses. Another 11 students in the master of fine arts program enrolled in eight sections and five unique courses.

More than a year later, the integration of the BSDT into Clark can be considered a resounding success. Enrollment goals have been met, the BSDT curriculum has been aligned with Clark’s and undergraduate admissions has completely integrated Becker programs into the comprehensive undergraduate recruitment portfolio. Our BSDT students are meeting expected outcomes in retention, graduation and learning, including outcomes related to their performance in Clark liberal studies courses.

The time between the March 2021 announcement of Becker’s closure and the opening of the new school at Clark in August 2021 left little time for an elongated planning and program-development process. In fact, the move from opportunity to execution happened more quickly than is characteristic in higher education. There are some important lessons to draw from the experience.

First, accept that you may not be able to control the timing of an opportunity and that you need to act decisively. For Clark, the opportunity to establish the Becker School was entirely unexpected, and the university had a very small window to consider it. Once the decision was made, Fithian moved quickly to engage the university community around the prospect of bringing the Becker program into Clark and negotiate the memorandum of understanding.

Second, ensure that the decision is driven by strategic considerations. The old adage “strategy should drive organizational change, not the other way around,” very much holds true. Clark is finalizing a strategic framework to promote itself as a destination university that provides a transformative liberal arts education and pursues research to address real-world problems with special emphasis in four interdisciplinary areas: climate and global change; creative arts, media, design and technology; life sciences and behavioral issues; and social and urban issues. With the integration of the BSDT, Clark is positioned to empower scholarship, pedagogy and innovation related to creative arts, media, design and technology. There was a clear strategic fit.

Third, foster buy-in from members of the community and open up opportunities for collaboration and growth. The academic programs represented by the BSDT were complementary to, and synergistic with, Clark’s existing curricular and programmatic offerings. For example, the Clark computer science department offers several courses in game design; the English department offers courses in writing for digital media; faculty in the philosophy department work on the ethics of social media and new interactive media platforms; and Clark’s Mosakowski Institute for Public Enterprise has been using gaming technology and interactive simulations to develop behavioral health applications targeted to young adults with a range of anxiety disorders.

Fourth, ensure organizational alignment and fit to create operational synergies and minimize possible redundances and resentments from the integration process. Clark decided to bring in the BSDT along the same organizational and administrative lines as other academic schools at Clark. Consequently, Clark has integrated the Becker undergraduate and graduate degrees within its own undergraduate and graduate academic structures. The dean of the Becker School reports administratively to the provost office and is subject to all the normal graduate and undergraduate governance review boards, while the school itself has a designated faculty and its own academic leadership.

Fifth, engage faculty, both in the decision-making and the integration process to ensure buy-in and strengthen shared governance. Clark faculty members were informed early on of the Becker initiative, and the administration engaged them proactively to secure their support. Once the decision was made, Clark ensured that the BSDT faculty was integrated into the university’s shared governance system. Full-time Becker professors are eligible to participate in faculty governance committees and in all faculty votes, and the BSDT coordinates its activities (new curricular initiatives, faculty hiring, promotions, etc.) within the existing faculty governance structure. Indeed, the BSDT is governed by all the established aspects of Clark’s academic, administrative and faculty governance.

Sixth, develop a clear plan to ensure a smooth transfer for the students. Salient features of the transfer included:

Becker student transfer application fees were waived. Clark honored and matched the financial commitments that Becker made to the students, and the students were not harmed financially in the transfer. Specifically, Clark honored Becker’s merit scholarships and kept undergraduate tuition for transfer students steady for the 2021–22 academic year by providing for each student a $12,100 grant to cover the difference in Becker’s and Clark’s published tuition rates. The grant stays with them until they graduate from Clark. Clark committed to offering an academic degree completion program so students can earn their degree in a timely fashion. Clark provided students transferring from Becker a seamless curricular map to complete their degrees. Clark’s undergraduate residency requirement policy—the minimum number of credit hours a student must take while enrolled at the university to be eligible for a degree—for transfer students is normally set at 50 percent of the curriculum. Clark agreed to lower the undergraduate residency requirement for this transfer cohort to 25 percent.

Seventh, provide a high level of programmatic and curricular continuity for students who already experienced substantial disruption. In this case, the continuity was provided through four dimensions:

Faculty: Eight out of 12 of Becker’s interactive media and design faculty members were hired by Clark. Additionally, Clark hired seven other former Becker staff members intimately connected with BSDT operations to support student services, co-curricular and summer programming, academic advising and tutoring, and to manage facilities and specialized information technology resources. Integrated curriculum: The curriculum that existed at Becker was integrated into the Clark catalog. Familiar facilities: The initial geographic placement of the program in leased space on the former Becker College campus provided a seamless transition for students. This allowed the Becker transfer cohort to continue to have a sense of both geographic and infrastructural continuity to support their academic transition. Clark is now building the Center for Media Arts, Computing, and Design on its campus to house the BSDT and several other Clark programs. Continuity of support services: Clark recognized that the disruption for Becker students was considerable, and therefore quickly decided to continue some existing programs, like Becker’s Strategic Learning Service program, a tutoring service for students with demonstrated learning challenges.

Eighth, designate an integrated team with representatives from both institutions to work on curricular integration. The work of mapping out the curricular needs of the students was completed by a team of Clark/BSDT faculty and staff in time for course registration for fall 2021. In addition, the BSDT faculty, in conjunction with the dean of the college and the faculty from the University Academic Board (and its undergraduate curriculum committee), implemented curricular changes to recast both the B.A. and M.F.A. to match existing Clark academic models, ensuring common admission and enrollment standards and consistent core course and credit requirements. All the curricular changes were subject to the regular approval processes from faculty committees.

Ninth, make a concerted effort to ensure that transfer students have the academic and administrative support that they need to transition to the new institution. All students in the BSDT, whether they be in the initial Becker transfer cohort, or newly admitted to the university, have full access to Clark’s student and academic services. In addition, Clark implemented a series of steps to specifically support the transition of Becker students. For instance, Clark guaranteed student housing on the Clark main campus. Student affairs partnered with Becker faculty for programming during orientation, and three clubs were brought over to Clark from Becker. In addition, the transfer orientation was separated from first-year orientation, and there was specific “How to Clark” programming instead of “How to College.” To facilitate access to both the Clark Worcester campus and the leased space on the former Becker College campus, Clark provides a shuttle service between the two locations. Clark also hosted a training session for resident assistants who would be hosting Becker transfers in their residence halls on how best to support their transition, and the Center for Counseling and Personal Growth hired a new counselor whose background is in supporting students with neurodivergent needs. Finally, the BSDT assistant dean of student academic services is a part of the CARE Network, a campuswide team focused on outreach and early interventions for students in need of support, to ensure Becker students are receiving holistic support services from all areas of campus.

Any merger between two institutions is a complicated endeavor fraught with potential stumbling blocks, and higher education is saddled with examples of failure. Humility and recognition of the challenges should be the first step toward integration. While nothing guarantees success, an intentional approach that addresses the above recommendations is far more likely to yield positive results.