By Mary Kate McGrath - March 23, 2020
Back in November of 2019, Emerson College in Boston announced plans to merge with Marlboro College in Vermont. Officials from the two colleges announced plans to move forward with an official merger immediately, with the Vermont-based school being one of the many smaller liberal arts colleges taking a hit from declining enrollment.
The preliminary plan stipulated that Emerson would effectively absorb Marlboro college, which would close its campus in Vermont and allow students to continue studies at the Boston campus. Navigating a convergence of two separate colleges or universities requires extensive planning. Among other protocols, administrators will need to reevaluate safety plans.
Successful mergers require constant communication, comprehensive planning, and shared values. For each of these criteria, safety practices must be included. For example, during the Emerson College and Marlboro College merger, students from Marlboro were given the option to continue their degrees at their current tuition rate, and the tenured faculty would be able to move to teach at the Boston campus. Plans to facilitate these transitions were included in the initial announcement. It’s critical for all students, faculty, and staff to be brought on board and welcomed to the community.
By setting a shared sense of community-values, making sure that faculty and students academic goals are prioritized, and communicating throughout the major transition, campus safety leaders ensure that every student, faculty, and staff member feel supported and safe throughout the process.
Each college or university will have unique safety challenges - for example, a major city school with nearly 40,000 students and buildings throughout a metropolitan area will have different safety concerns than a rural college with fewer than 800 students.
For a college or university merging, it’s important to reevaluate the school's specific safety challenges. As Marlboro students joined the community at Emerson, it meant moving into a city school setting. Metropolitan areas often have higher crime-rates, and as a result, a college or university in these areas are more likely to have a stronger physical security, such as tap-in ID desks or security cameras. It’s important for safety leaders on campus to communicate any important protocol or best practices for new community members before they arrive on campus.
During a merger, others have made sure that the process is not complicated by conflicting principles or miscommunication. One critical element of ensuring students, faculty, and staff feel safe is establishing a set of shared values pre-transition. In November of 2019, a small, private art and design college with less than 200 students was sold to a larger Christian college in Nashville, Tennessee. Following the announcement, many faculty members began to panic, as their new home had a strict rule against hiring non-Christian faculty. The provost at the new school made an initial announcement reasserting that their Christian values would not be compromised; meanwhile, another representative from the college said that the art school faculty would be given special consideration due to the unique circumstances of merging with a Christian school unexpectedly. The lack of clearly communicated values stoked panic and outrage, slowing down the transition process and raising safety concerns.
Students from the 200-person art school had identity-related safety concerns - many in the LGBTQ+ community protested merging with a college with strict religious ideals that might not be welcoming. Furthermore, many were anxious that their artistic freedom - the reason they chose a small art school in the first place - would be compromised. Many protested the art school merging with a school that wouldn’t hire non-Christian faculty, citing concerns about how that would bode for gay artists in the college and the faculty-members they'd grown to love.
Faculty-members from the art institution were informed at the last minute of their ineligibility. Meanwhile, students were unsure of their academic futures, or if their new school would be a hospitable space. Communication between departments and inter-departmental communication are equally critical. Messaging can be a critical component of a transition; leaders at the large Christian college in Tennessee did not seem to have a consensus on what policy would be for faculty-hiring. The confusion stoked division and outrage from the art school students, and it put the merger into jeopardy.
Transparency is key - make sure that students, faculty, and staff understand every element of the merger, and can make informed decisions about whether or not to continue studies with the institution.
Making a long-term transition plan has allowed administrators to demonstrate to students, faculty, and staff how the merger will be beneficial for both communities. For example, strong academic departments coming together have been known to revive a weaker section of a college or university department, or a remote campus can expand learning for students into new industries. Making the long-term benefits clear will make both parties feel confident moving forward, as the merger will inevitably be complex, and community-members need to feel the temporary discomfort is worth it.
For any campus that has looked to bolster safety and emergency communication amid a merger, technology can play a major role. By leveraging a campus safety app, managers have been able to add an extra layer of safety for new community members. Users can use the app as a virtual guardian - by setting a fixed time for departure or arrival at any location, their "guardians" will be notified when community members arrive at their intended destination. If the app user does not manage to get to their location on time, campus safety teams or local law enforcement will be informed.
No matter what campus scenario a student, faculty member, or staff found themselves in - whether it's a community accustomed to a rural, expansive campus who were new to the city, or students from a small school joining a larger campus, the app adds an extra safety-net. During an emergency, the app also allows any student, faculty, or staff member to directly call 9-1-1, providing critical location data that allows first responders to address the call more quickly.
A campus safety app also empowers new community members to access critical information from the virtual student directory, such as how to reach health or counseling services or the campus safety department. For students and faculty navigating new academic departments, centralizing these resources can be imperative. The app can also be used to solicit feedback from community-members throughout a merger process. Two-way confidential texting capability strengthens community-engagement. Listening to student and faculty concerns can go along way toward making the process run more smoothly. It has also helped campus safety teams better understand the safety concerns that students have coming in, and how best to communicate best-practices.
Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.
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