Saint Joseph’s University completed its acquisition of the University of the Sciences on Wednesday, creating what the Jesuit institution says is one of the three largest private universities in the competitive Philadelphia region.
With the deal officially done, Saint Joseph’s has close to 400 full-time faculty members, an endowment totaling $550 million, annual revenue of $400 million and enrollment of nearly 8,900, counting both undergraduate and graduate students. It has added a new city campus, about five miles away from its suburban campus. And it’s touting the addition of physical therapy, occupational therapy, pharmacy and physician’s assistant programs, giving it a total of 221 academic programs.
Wednesday’s closing ends a process for the University of the Sciences that dates back to the summer of 2020, when it started looking for a partner. The institution, which was founded in 1821 and operated under several names over the years — including the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science — sought additional scale so that its programs could continue into the future.
The University of the Sciences successfully found a partner before its finances forced it to do so — a notable fact in a world of higher education mergers and acquisitions where colleges are sometimes forced to close after failing to complete deals. Also notable is that the institutions had significant differences. The University of the Sciences was a secular institution being acquired by a Catholic institution, which cast into the limelight the church’s stances such as its opposition to contraception.
That left a lot to discuss with Saint Joseph’s President Mark Reed and Provost Cheryl McConnell, who answered questions about the acquisition and the steps needed to see it through.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
HIGHER ED DIVE: How did the acquisition process go since the agreement was first made public last year?
CHERYL MCCONNELL: The sheer scope of the work in the last year is stunning in its depth and breadth. We anticipated that it would be a lot of work, and it was. Also, it was satisfying and exciting work.
It started with the determination of a new university structure, and then it went to the determination of which programs would be continued, modified, taught out, brought over as is, and then it went to workforce planning and to integration and orientation.
With higher ed mergers, you have more groups with a say and a stake in the outcome than you might in other sectors.
MARK REED: What makes universities different from, say, for-profit companies is we have constituents: faculty, students, staff, alumni, local civic leaders, accreditors, parents — you name it. And there is a lot of decentralization of authority and a lot of shared governance that makes universities run.
This isn’t four or five people who go into a room with a bunch of lawyers and come out five months later with an answer.
At the same time, you can’t run a university by committee. So there has to be a balance of those particular roles.
Did you run into any unexpected barriers or challenges?
REED: From my perspective, there was not a big one. You have to just constantly remind individuals involved of what is actually happening.
For example, we are going to have, now, as part of Saint Joseph’s University, a significant footprint in the health professions space. We are going to have programs in physician assistant, physical therapy, occupational therapy and, of course, pharmacy, which is the foundational program that the University of the Sciences was founded on 200 years ago.
It is a very important part of what is a broad-based portfolio that has continued to be grounded in our Jesuit mission and Jesuit tradition, which is grounded in the liberal arts and sciences.
It’s a merger. But you know, the reality is, at the end of the day, it’s one institution. That’s Saint Joseph’s University. The term acquisition isn’t used as frequently, but that’s in effect what it is in a practical reality. I’m the president. Saint Joseph’s University’s board is the board, all of those kinds of things.
That doesn’t mean take two things, put them together, and now you’ve got two of everything. I’ll give you a very in-the-weeds kind of example. We’re switching our HR payroll finance system from Ellucian Banner to Workday. It’s something the university would have done, probably, anyway four or five years from now. But we saw an opportunity to say, “Look, University of the Sciences has already made this investment. Let’s carry this forward and do that now.”
MCCONNELL: A lesson learned is to probe for cultural differences early, particularly in communication.
Do you mean differences in communication frequency or format?
MCCONNELL: It’s both. It is frequency and level of detail and purpose. Mostly the communication from the president at Saint Joseph’s University is presidential-level, long-term strategy. It was more operational at the University of the Sciences. Same thing with the provost communication. It was very much top-down at the University of the Sciences, and we use our deans to be the leaders of the educational units.
REED: One isn’t necessarily better than the other.
In some cases it’s the size of the institution, the complexity of it, where an institution is in its current thinking and strategy.
Did you have to lay anyone off because of this transaction?
MCCONNELL: The University of the Sciences had about 170 faculty, and we brought over approximately 140 of those faculty. So all tenured faculty, all faculty in programs that are not duplicative, and then the majority of the other faculty members.
REED: We did a thorough workforce planning analysis as part of this, and in some cases there were positions that will not be brought forward into Saint Joseph’s University. While this was minimal, we looked at the Saint Joseph’s side, too, and said, “OK, is there something here that doesn’t make sense anymore?”
It wasn’t just a one-way street, although it certainly was more impactful for the University of the Sciences.
There really was a thorough analysis of it, and people who aren’t going to continue at Saint Joseph’s are being treated very well. Transitional support, severance and the like.
MCCONNELL: Every faculty member that was not retained received a full year’s salary.
One hard conversation that came up before the deal closed involved contraception. Some students were upset that the University of the Sciences would no longer be providing contraception through the student health center after the deal closed.
REED: As a Jesuit and Catholic institution, we have a very clear mission and very clear identity, and it has been our practice at Saint Joseph’s and, I believe, our practice is wholly consistent and common among other Catholic and certainly Jesuit institutions across the country.
We do not dispense birth control to our students, either nonprescription birth control like condoms or prescription birth control such as birth control pills. And we’re not a pharmacy, so our student health center is not an urgent care clinic. It’s not affiliated with a hospital or medical group. It’s a supplemental student health center.
We do not have any restrictions whatsoever on our students in terms of their use of birth control, either prescription or nonprescription.
The University of the Sciences was dispensing to a very small number of students. My understanding is it was less than 10 students. They were actually dispensing prescription birth control, and our view is we just don’t dispense prescription drugs.
Two other points: Birth control — in accordance with the law and in accordance with long-standing practice here at Saint Joe’s and, again, consistent with practice at other Catholic Jesuit institutions — for employees, birth control is covered under our health insurance plans, and for students who choose to purchase a student health insurance plan, birth control is also covered.
MCCONNELL: In the research area there are no limitations on research for anyone at the university. I would say the only exception to that is live stem cells from fetuses. That would be the only restriction at all.
What else should we talk about?
REED: This is a really big deal for us and I think higher education, and specifically, higher education in the Philadelphia region, which is saturated with institutions — Catholic institutions as well as state-related institutions and other privates.
Often these kinds of institutional strategic choices really play themselves out over 20, 30, 40 years.
Where the School of Health Professions and programs are going to be 10, 15 years from now, that’s the exciting part.
We’ve been around for 175 years. The University of the Sciences has been around for 200 years. We as leaders today are making decisions and creating conditions. We know others, ultimately, will write the rest of the story.