More questions than answers for those upset over NHIA/SNHU merger

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A town hall meeting about the proposed merger is set for Aug. 18 at the French Auditorium on Concord Street.
NHIA
New Hampshire Institute of Art

Sean Beavers, an adjunct professor in the painting department at NHIA, first heard about the small art college’s plan to consider merging with Southern New Hampshire University on the news.

“My gut reaction was surprise, especially because we were in the midst of a presidential search that, from my understanding, was pretty far along in the process. They were about to interview final candidates, so the announcement seemed like it came out of nowhere,” said Beavers, who has been teaching at the downtown Manchester college for 15 years.

Beavers is against the merger – at least not now, he says, not before students, alumni and faculty have had a chance to fully understand the reasons why the NHIA board of trustees would consider it a good option.

To Beavers, it feels like they’re dismantling a one-of-a-kind piece of art.

“It’s like the Currier, this little gem of the arts culture, and it makes a lot of people’s lives better,” says Beavers.

Shortly after he heard about the merger, he received an email from Richard Strawbridge, executive vice president of the college, about a Memorandum of Understanding that NHIA and SNHU had entered into.

Strawbridge says that was premature and never should have happened.

“The MOU was inadvertently released to the press, which it wasn’t supposed to be, and so since then we’ve been reacting to that. I’ve been in so many meetings to explain what this is all about, and the truth is, we’ve only just begun the due diligence,” says Strawbridge.

“I know a lot of people believe this is a done deal, but it’s not. We’re underway with that process. We’ve met with different constituencies from Southern New Hampshire
getting to know one another a bit, to determine if a merger is something that should happen this year – or ever,” says Strawbridge.

Another town hall meeting will be held August 18 at NH Institute of Art.
Another town hall meeting will be held August 18 at NH Institute of Art.

Part of the process has included a series of town hall meetings, the next of which is scheduled for August 18 at 5 p.m. at the French Auditorium, 148 Concord St.

The meeting is for students, employees and friends of the Institute who want to ask questions about the proposed merger of Paul LeBlanc, SNHU president.

Beavers says to date he and several other faculty and alumni have been in touch with NHIA board, but have not gotten the impression that the board is asking the right questions about the proposed merger. Their point of view is that it’s important for NHIA to remain a small, independent art-centric college, and that SNHU will absorb the college and reduce its significance as a fine-arts institution.

Those opposed to the merger have launched a petition on change.org which has 1,050 signatures to date.

“I’ll be blunt: I believe in the not so distant future because of vast distance in culture, NHIA will become an art department of SNHU instead of this wonderful independent institution it is now. I think that would be devastating for the state of New Hampshire,” Beavers says.

Senior NHIA student Sydney Sparrow has written an op/ed piece for Manchester Ink Link about what the merger would mean for those who believe in the college’s mission, “to engage students, artists, scholars, and the community in the arts through quality education, outreach, and access to creative resources, with a focus on the present and a vision on the future.”

It would also force her to change direction, personally.

“I truly love the school and the people who teach and attend the school.  If this merger does go through, sadly, I will be transferring to one of the independent art schools in either Maine or Massachusetts,” Sparrow says.

Cindy Rizza, an artist who graduated from NHIA in 2007 says the merger raises concerns for her personally about the value of her college degree, on which she “spent thousands” of dollars in pursuit of her profession.

“Although SNHU is a non-profit, you can turn on the television in Colorado and see commercials from SNHU’s online programs. I do not want the school I graduated from to be perceived as a for-profit institution. Our school has prided itself on being a small community of dedicated, talented artists that value a skills-based art education. Paul LeBlanc’s history has shown he likes to add offerings that are popular and accessible. This would seriously damage the focus of the school’s mission and quality of student work,” says Rizza.

Her practical concerns revolve around what she calls “missing pieces of a puzzle” that lead her to believe the merger is a done deal, including the abrupt halt of the presidential search and the sense that NHIA would be absorbed by SNHU and lose its identity.

Strawbridge says the search for a new college president was put on hold until the merger process was settled.

“We didn’t feel it would be fair to the candidates –  if a merger were to take place it would be a very different position than originally advertised,” says Strawbridge, who also acknowledges the concern, that the current identity of NHIA, as an independent art college, would be lost in the transaction.

“That is a widely held concern. I would not want to see that happen. The school has been around since 1898, and has a culture that’s important, and I hope that could be maintained. I also don’t believe that just because a merger would happen, that would be destroyed,” says Strawbridge.

Beavers cites an article written by Dr. Gerri King, of Human Dynamics Associates Inc., a Concord-based consulting firm, on why mergers often fail.

“Gerri King has written a wonderful article that talks about why such mergers and acquisitions,  because of secrecy and not involving stakeholders, fail. I will say that since this first started, NHIA and SNHU are just now starting to make small steps toward transparency, and the meeting on [August] 18th is another small step in the right direction,” Beavers said.

Strawbridge said NHIA is not looking at a merger due to any looming financial trouble.

“But the thing to remember is that we are a small independent college, and things have not been easy for small independent colleges since the recession. We don’t really have any guarantees, so trying to look long-term at all our options,” says Strawbridge.

He said the college’s fundraising and development efforts are solid, having recently finished a successful capital campaign that went toward scholarships and a future arts educators program based at the former St. Ann’s parish, now owned by NHIA, which should be underway by mid-2015.

Another concern among those who say they are skeptical of the merger is a September 1 deadline for action that is written into the MOU. Strawbridge says given the fact that NHIA is just now beginning the due diligence process in earnest, the September 1 deadline is moot.

“The idea is, when you’re attempting a merger, to keep things moving, and so the idea was to have a target date.  We’ve been slowed down due the process we’ve been undertaking in responding to the community, and so you won’t likely see anything happen on September 1,” says Strawbridge.

He says despite how it may feel to those who have expressed concerns, their interest makes a difference.

“We have led up to this big meeting on the 18th with three smaller meetings involving students, alumni, faculty and staff and donors, and we’ve seen a great deal of information exchanged, and both constituencies and trustees have more knowledge. This will most definitely have an impact on what happens next,” says Strawbridge. “There are no opposing sides here. The Board of Trustees are just as enamored of and caring of the school as are the donors and alumni. We’re all shooting for the same thing: long-term viability.”


Click here to read a copy of the Memorandum of Understanding with questions inserted by those within the school community with questions for the Board of Trustees.


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About Carol Robidoux 5447 Articles
Journalist and editor of ManchesterInkLink.com, a hyperlocal news and information site for Manchester, NH.