Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Consolidations in education - a wise move?

Conventional wisdom seems to like consolidations when budgets get tight. I'm not so sure that consolidation is a good thing; and quite frankly, I have learned that consolidations are a really bad strategy. While in business consolidations can save companies from bankruptcy, it has been my experience that well intentioned consolidations in government can be disastrous.

I recently read a short article on the plan at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) to abolish the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and the College of Natural Resources and the Environment in order to to form a single college which will be known as the College of Natural Sciences. In the words of Steve Goodwin, dean of the College of Natural Resources and the Environment; the consolidation of two colleges "better positions us to compete nationally and internationally and enhances our ability to attract and retain the best faculty and offer excellent education for our students." Who can argue with that? There is no doubt that dedicated people are trying to do the right thing.

Let's look a little deeper. Initially, by the fall of 2009, the new college will house the following programs: Astronomy, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Biology, Chemistry, Computer Science, Environmental Sciences, Food Science, Geosciences, Mathematics and Statistics, Microbiology, Natural Resources Conservation, Physics, Plant, Soil and Insect Sciences,Polymer Science and Engineering, Psychology, Stockbridge School of Agriculture and Veterinary and Animal Sciences. The plan seems to call for future college realignments which will result in disciplines like Psychology, Computer Science and Polymer Science and Engineering to find new homes by 2010. Even with that change, the new College of Natural Sciences is a monster!

Having been a UMass graduate (1972) with a forestry degree, you can imagine why I'm concerned. Does Forestry, Wildlife Conservation and Wood Technology seem a little buried? Here is the larger issue; while immediate cost savings may be demonstrable, larger is never cheaper. In time, the new college will prove more expensive. Think about it; consolidations in government seldom see anyone cast aside from the pay rolls. The new monster college will result in higher compensation for administrators. Initial savings are almost always impossible to maintain.

The new college will be under the same cost restraints as the original two. As time moves forward, decisions regarding program cuts will be made. Programs with the least power and the fewest students will be jettisoned like a bad penny. Administrators making the decisions will be too far removed from the issues to fully comprehend consequences. Students will not be better served and educational opportunities will be diminished. Some disciplines such as forestry will never command the student numbers of a mathematics program. The need for those 25 or 30 graduates each year in forestry may be critical to the state's environmental efforts in the decades ahead. When the dean of the college may well be a chemistry professor, understanding forestry issues will be a real stretch.

In my opinion, maintaining the original colleges will result in better decisions into the future. Think about the most successful businesses today. The fastest growing business segment involves the dot.com companies that are small with simple strategic visions. Netflix, Google, and Amazon, just to name a few, are now giants. Time-Warner did not have the corporate mentality to create an AOL. AOL was purchased by Time-Warner and now Time-Warner has had to cast AOL aside because administrators were too far removed from the dot.com culture. Time-Warner had no idea how to make decisions that would enhance the AOL position. I fear the same lack of sensitivity when consolidations take place in government and universities.

While administrators struggle with some harsh economic realities, I think they need to remember this - larger is not cheaper and bigger is not better.



  1. I think I agree with you--Forestry ,etc. would get "lost" with some of the larger and more well-known majors. Also, the problem of qualified instructors for specialized areas of study would be at risk...to students' and others' detriment... (especially in our present "green" era to be hopefully)

  2. Consolidations are not limited to UMass in the five college area of Amherst, MA.
    Smith, Hampshire, and Mount Holyoke colleges are going to merge their public safety departments.


    To big to fail (AIG) and to big to succeed (GM) are everywhere including the population of the Earth.
    If universities can't learn this lesson, the future seems bleak.