Program Acquisitions: Lessons for Leaders
In my role as dean of the College of Health and Science at Concordia University, St. Paul (CSP), I collaborated in the acquisition of two resource-intensive healthcare programs associated with university closures. In December 2016, CSP began the acquisition process for a pre-licensure nursing program, and, in March 2019, CSP acquired a diagnostic medical sonography program. Currently, in April 2020, CSP is pursuing the acquisition of a third program, a pre-licensure nursing program in another state also associated with a university closure. The acquisitions had similarities and differences, with one primary dissimilarity being my leadership and recognition of lessons learned from previous acquisitions. If you find yourself in a similar position in which you are wondering about program acquisition, here are some suggestions to guide you along your way.
1. Use an acquisition team
Involve key stakeholders in the acquisition process and use existing processes. It is helpful to include human resources, the provost, the chief financial officer, assessment and accreditation, and others as needed. The size of the acquisition will determine the key team members. Based on my experience, open-minded colleagues who view acquisitions as opportunities to support a new group of students and faculty and the university mission make for a strong, impactful team. Trust your colleagues’ expertise and the processes in place to guide the decisions needing to be made throughout the acquisition.
2. Review the program(s) for institutional fit, synergy, and shared values
Our institution had already identified the desire to add pre-licensure nursing and diagnostic medical sonography programs via strategic growth in health sciences, but it was not ready to begin development. Acquiring the programs presented a unique opportunity to begin them in a quicker and less expensive, albeit nontraditional, manner. A recommendation is to have a list of future programs the university would consider adding through its own development or acquisition (or both): review programs for institutional fit, synergy with existing programs, and shared values of the institution. This early review will accelerate your institution’s ability to move quickly on an acquisition. Once you decide to acquire a program, it is also important to use your existing processes for program review and approval. Accrediting agencies will want to verify existing processes and policies were used.
3. Show care and concern for the students involved
Students are in a vulnerable position when their institution closes. They are looking for answers. It is recommended that one person in the enrollment management or admissions office be the primary contact for student inquiries to ensure that students receive consistent messages. We shared factual information from accreditors (e.g., timeline of program review) with students so they could make informed decisions about their future educational paths.
4. Show care and concern for the faculty involved
My biggest lesson learned is this one: people are everything. Each institution needs to determine whether to hire the faculty in the acquired program(s) (see #7 below). If faculty and staff are brought over with the program, they will be under a great deal of stress and uncertainty. They will wonder, Will I have a job well into the future? What will happen to my students? What is the culture of the new university? Who will I report to? What will the program look like now that another university is offering it? It is imperative that you show care and concern for the people involved. Get to know them as people and colleagues. Empathize with them for the loss they are experiencing and the acquisition’s impact on students and colleagues at their previous university. I found that throughout CSP’s first two acquisitions, my focus changed. It became less about strategy and more about building trust and relationships. In the current acquisition, I am again focusing on the people involved. One note: If you have faculty who have been brought over as part of an acquisition, recognize that any university closures in the news will likely evoke stressful memories. Continue to check in with those colleagues and provide support.
5. Accreditation, accreditation, accreditation
This point is vital: student success is the rationale for the acquisition, and faculty are key to the success of any strategy associated with accreditation. It is important to involve regional accreditors, programmatic accreditors (when applicable), and regulatory agencies early in the acquisition process. Learn the policies and regulations associated with the acquisition and collaborate with agencies to find an optimal resolution. During each of CSP’s acquisitions, I have appreciated the accreditation processes as they have ensured the programs’ quality—an added reassurance for everyone associated with the programs.
6. Conduct an interview or alternate process for prospective employees
Each institution needs to determine whether the employees in the acquired program(s) will transition to the new institution. An interview or a different screening process can be helpful for both the university and the prospective faculty. It gives the university time to learn about the prospective employees, and it allows prospective faculty to assess the institution’s culture and expectations and whether they can envision a future with the school.
7. Find ways to initiate newly hired faculty to your institution’s culture
Similar to faculty with experience at previous institution(s), your new faculty may understand how to be faculty at their old institution, but unfortunately that experience does not translate to an understanding of your institution. To succeed at your institution, they need to learn your expectations and culture. Be intentional about the onboarding process. Use seminars, mentorship models, and general conversation to acclimate them to your institution. At CSP, we hosted a semester-long seminar, along with intentional one-on-one and group conversations, to connect faculty to other new hires and help them learn more about the ethos of the institution.
8. Include faculty at your existing institution
Faculty governance is an important part of any institution. At CSP, I am grateful to the many colleagues who supported each acquisition. Faculty have been helpful with vetting acquisition opportunities (we recently said no to one opportunity), pursuing program approvals and associated policy updates, and providing overall guidance regarding implementation. Our faculty continue to focus on student success, and program acquisition has been one way to support a new student audience.
9. Communicate often while also embracing uncertainty
My previous acquisition experience has given me a general sense of the acquisition process, but the mechanics of each acquisition have differed due to the many variables involved. There is much uncertainty associated with acquisitions. My takeaway is to not wait too long to communicate with the various groups: current faculty, prospective employees, and students. Communicate intentionally and remember that all parties will pore over each word on account of the emotions involved. I have found that early and ongoing communication, even if I do not know all the details, helps to build relationships and encourage collaboration.
10. Practice self-care and encourage others to do the same
The acquisition process is stressful and requires a significant time investment. I felt a responsibility to the prospective students and prospective employees to provide a positive next step for each program. While we could not change the circumstances of the closures, we could work diligently to get the program approved and accepting students as soon as possible. The ongoing stressors associated with the acquisitions have led me to recommend that leaders prioritize self-care in the form of healthy eating, exercise, and striving for a full night’s sleep. I have found that practicing these self-care activities has made me a stronger leader and more equipped to be a better source of support for others.
Acquisitions provide an exciting opportunity to serve additional students in support of your university’s mission. Remember to stick to the process, and, most importantly, focus on people.
Katie J. Fischer, DrPH, is the dean of the College of Health and Science at Concordia University, St. Paul.