The governing boards of the schools last week signed a non-binding letter of intent to explore the idea, with the aim of coming to a formal agreement next year.
“It’s no secret that higher education is challenged right now, so whatever we can do to improve what we do for students is going to be for our benefit and the benefit of the students,” said Michael Groener, interim president of Holy Names.
Groener previously worked at the Claremont Colleges, a consortium of schools in Southern California that share library facilities and a central business office, which allows schools to “talk to one another” and solve problems jointly, he said.
“Because of that, I feel very strongly about this,” he said.
Under the plan, Samuel Merritt would move from its current North Oakland location to the Holy Names campus off Highway 13 in the Oakland hills and both universities would invest in building new classrooms and dorms on the site. Each school would remain independent with its own professors and administrators, but they would share some buildings, like the library and dining halls, and could develop some shared programs.
The concept is unusual but not entirely unprecedented, and Groener thinks more schools will consider the model in the coming years. UC Berkeley and Mills College announced a partnership last month to house Cal students at the Oakland women’s college and offer Mills students access to UC’s study abroad programs. Berkeley is struggling to provide enough housing and classroom space for its students, and Mills has been working to boost flagging enrollment. In Denver, three separate colleges share a campus and other resources.
Holy Names and Samuel Merritt each have something to gain from an alliance. Samuel Merritt, a healthcare-focused school, is tight on space at its current location, which is a sprawling collection of buildings.
Sharon Diaz, president of Samuel Merritt, said students and faculty have been asking for a defined campus for years, and more affordable housing as the cost of living in Oakland has soared. “We want a campus, something that looks like an honest-to-goodness university campus,” she said.
Samuel Merritt has expanded in recent years as the need for healthcare providers has risen. But like other small liberal arts colleges, Holy Names is struggling to grow enrollment, which currently hovers just shy of 900 students, down from more than 1,300 in 2011.
There are likely to be some challenges. Neighbors in the surrounding community are likely to have concerns about increased traffic in the area, for one thing. But leaders of both schools thinks the benefits of collaboration will be worthwhile in the long run.
“It’s fun and exciting and neat to be doing something not everybody’s done,” Diaz said. “To me, it’s much more practical than trying to find a nice big space and start from scratch…And I think it’s better for trying to maintain the costs of education, which are challenging for everybody.”