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Jefferson-Philadelphia University merger drawing attention from other schools

It's way too early to declare last year's merger of Jefferson University with Philadelphia University a success, but leaders, faculty and students are encouraged by early signs. And other schools, facing the same pressures, are starting to take notice.

Stanton Miller, right, a surgeon and executive director of the Jefferson Center for Injury Research and Prevention, works with engineering students, including Olivia Mermigos, left, and Andrew Gabriele, about their helmet design project on the East Falls campus. TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Stanton Miller, right, a surgeon and executive director of the Jefferson Center for Injury Research and Prevention, works with engineering students, including Olivia Mermigos, left, and Andrew Gabriele, about their helmet design project on the East Falls campus. TIM TAI / Staff PhotographerRead moreTim Tai

Stanton Miller, a Thomas Jefferson University research surgeon, wanted to find a way to make youth sports helmets safer.

The medical side, he had covered. But the engineering piece?

"I didn't have that expertise at the university," said Miller, who heads the school's Center for Injury Research and Prevention.

Not until last year.

That's when Jefferson acquired Philadelphia University, best known for its design, engineering, and health science programs. Now, Miller has engineering students and professors working on the problem with him at the East Falls campus.

The project is an example of the collaboration that has blossomed since the schools, serving about 7,800 undergraduate and graduate students combined, first floated the merger in 2015 and finalized it last July.

It's way too early to declare it a success — that will take years — but leaders, faculty, and students are encouraged by early signs: Donations are up. The school has seen a surge in undergraduate applications. And there's a growing number of partnerships between the campuses.

Others are noticing.  Stephen Spinelli Jr., chancellor of the new enterprise, said he's received 30 phone calls from other colleges asking about the merger – and for good reason.

Across the country, universities have had to cope with declining enrollments and tight budgets as the number of 18-year-olds falls while competition and pressure to keep tuition affordable increase. The most dire critics predict that without drastic changes, as many as half of U.S. colleges could go bankrupt over the next few decades.

The leaders of Jefferson and Philadelphia Universities not only recognized the need to try something different, they've embraced, even marketed, it.

Once defined as a school for health-care professionals, Jefferson now has athletic teams and an annual campus fashion show. And the fledgling engineers who once dominated Philadelphia University now are sharing classroom space and collaborating with students in scrubs.

A new ad campaign launched during the Olympics touts the new dual-identity and cross-disciplinary emphasis.

"If the world isn't stuck in the past, why is higher education?" a voice asks. "… Let's have the people making floor plans work with these guys making care plans."

The Jefferson venture grew from a meeting of the schools' entrepreneurial presidents: Stephen K. Klasko, an obstetrician with an MBA, who also has acquired several hospital systems since becoming Jefferson's CEO in 2013, and Spinelli, who cofounded the car-service chain Jiffy Lube before becoming Philadelphia University president in 2007. A conversation between them about Philadelphia University securing clinical sites for its students in health care bloomed into something larger.

Both men believe higher education is too expensive, too rigid, and needed to be "disrupted."

"The fact is we both saw and still see chaos as opportunity," Spinelli said.

Others say schools that don't declare their niche and find ways to operate more efficiently could be endangered.

"If that financial pressure stays in play, I think you'll see institutions more and more looking for different levels of collaboration," said Louis Soares, vice president of strategy, research, and advancement at the American Council on Education.

The collaboration could range from informal partnerships to mergers, he said.

To faculty and staff at the two Philadelphia schools, the idea at first seemed odd: What good could come from pairing a health sciences university and large hospital with a small private university founded in 1884 by textile manufacturers and until 1999 known as the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science? Some Philadelphia University alumni questioned whether that school was abandoning its roots and its cohesive culture.

But Klasko and Spinelli, along with Jefferson provost Mark Tykocinski, got faculty and students to see merit in marrying schools already engaged in cross-disciplinary work. Now, the leaders say, they aspire to become the equivalent of an Ivy League school for professional education.

Jefferson has nine colleges already, with a 10th, focusing on rehabilitation sciences, opening this summer. But it also plans to add an honors college for top undergraduates in medicine, architecture, design, or another profession, as well as colleges focusing on computational thinking, digital health, and emerging studies.

"We want to train the elite professionals for the 21st century," said Tykocinski, a molecular immunologist.

John Pierce Jr., a psychology professor and chair of the faculty at East Falls, said the response has been positive. "The administration has been very good about listening to our concerns and maintaining our culture," he said, "and we have been encouraged by that."

The unease among Philadelphia University students about losing the school's name and identity has lessened with time, said Isabella Siravo, 21, a senior fashion merchandising and management major and student body president.

"It's still OK to say Philly U," she said. "We're proud of who we are and who we are becoming. I really think this is just the start of something revolutionary."

For senior Dan Sunderland, 21, a textile and industrial engineering major from Philadelphia, the partnership already is reaping a benefit.

"We would have never met Dr. Miller if we had stayed Philadelphia University," said Sunderland, sporting a Jefferson hat as he worked on the helmet project.

Philadelphia University — which had a $135 million budget and about 3,750 students, mostly  undergraduates — gained financial strength, size, and sophistication, Spinelli said.

For Jefferson, the merger continued its accelerated growth under Klasko. In 2012, the university and its three hospitals were a $1.3 billion operation with about 3,750 students, most at the graduate level. Now, it has twice as many students — about half undergraduate — and 14 hospitals operating on a $5.1 billion budget. Formerly landlocked in Center City, it also gained space on East Falls' 107-acre campus; a health sciences building will open there in 2019.

And for the first time, Jefferson has 17 NCAA athletic teams, inherited from its new partner. They're called the Jefferson Rams.

After the merger, dozens of maroon and gray Philadelphia University signs came down on the East Falls campus and blue Jefferson signs went up. (The bookstore still sells Philadelphia University T-shirts.)

With that growth, Jefferson has had challenges, including a $27.9 million operating loss for the six months ending Dec. 31.

And the transition wasn't seamless. The universities had to consult more than 50 accrediting agencies, merge websites, and move staff. The schools avoided layoffs but cut some staff through attrition.

Undergraduate tuition for 2018-19 will run $39,495, up $1,335 from last year, or about 3.5 percent.

The long process has been worth it, said Tod Corlett, director of industrial design programs. Before the merger, Corlett had conversations with Jefferson emergency medicine doctor Bon Ku, an assistant dean who was looking for a design school partner. The merger talk accelerated their plans.

"As a faculty member, it really just opens up more opportunities," Ku said.

In a Center City lab, design students and medical students are collaborating on projects, including an ergonomic bandage to help patients who develop ulcers in skin folds under the arms. The bandage prototype is shaped like a Pringle potato chip to fit comfortably under the arm, explained Haru Jang, 27, an industrial design graduate student.

She welcomed the new collaboration.

"It's the future," said Jang, of West Chester. "We can't work autonomously and expect that we can better patients' lives by sticking to our own zones."

Students on the helmet project hauled out their materials: an expanded foam model of a head, squares of fabric, a mix of chemicals and a shot put wrapped in black cloth, about the weight of a human head. They've researched helmets going back 50 years and — though early in the design process — think it's better to have a soft outer shell to absorb heavy impact.

Miller said it will take a few years, and next year's seniors will build on the progress of the current class. He envisions future students tackling headgear for other sports.

“This is just the beginning,” Miller said.