The Mercyhurst College community is taking a serious look at becoming Mercyhurst University. Mercyhurst College President Dr. Tom Gamble announced Monday that the Board of Trustees unanimously approved his plan to research the feasibility of gaining university status.
“We have come to believe that we will be better able to grow and develop as an institution and as entities within the institution once we accept an organizational structure that both clarifies and is more consistent with what we already are,” Gamble said.
As Gamble noted in his speech, Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education and US News & World Report already lists Mercyhurst under “master’s universities.”
But many students do not understand the difference between a university and a college. Contrary to the word’s connotations for some students, a university does not have to be a public school.
According to Gamble, “A college tends to do one thing (the one thing generally is offering four-year baccalaureate degrees), while a university does many things, including awarding graduate degrees.”
The college has already created master’s degree programs, online courses and off-site certificate programs that are more characteristic of a university than a college.
“In so many ways we’re functioning as a university, and it gives us a greater sense of clarity and understanding of where all the pieces come together. In a certain sense it’s really an opportunity for us to become who we already are,” Mercyhurst Student Government (MSG) President Dinorah Sanchez said.
Gamble and several members of the administration plan to travel to Harrsiburg to meet with the Pennsylvania Department of Education and discuss the requirements for becoming a university. Mercyhurst already has most of the requirements for being considered a university, according to members of the administration.
“It’s really confusing to have a traditional college that has 1,000 associate degrees and 400 graduate students and alternate locations in northern Virginia,” Gamble said. “The result is that all these other things confuse and dilute the identity of the traditional residential undergraduate college and being a part of a ‘college’ weakens the identity of other academic initiatives.”
Losing the college’s identity is a main concern for many students. “I think we should stay a good Catholic college and keep up with our morals and heritage. It seems like universities are more public and secular,” freshman Kahla Wilson said.
One of the main focuses of the administration, however, is to preserve “Mercyhurst College” as the traditional, main campus four-year baccalaureate program that would operate under the umbrella of Mercyhurst University. With university status, Mercyhurst College would retain its enrollment, class sizes, trimester system, student-faculty relationship and core values. As an entity of the university, Mercyhurst College would no longer be responsible for administrating other institutional initiatives and would gain the ability to focus on improving undergraduate education.
“It gives us an identity within the larger university which allows the college to be the college,” Vice President for Resident Life Gerry Tobin said. “The college can develop the way it chooses to develop and all these other areas can as well…. It really gives us all the freedom to be who we really are.”
But what would the change really mean for students? Most of them have no clue.
Junior Briana Witt said, “What everyone was saying when we first heard about it is, ‘What is university status?’ and ‘What’s it going to change?’” Witt said.
Gamble and college Provost Dr. James Adovasio said they believe the change wouldn’t really impact students’ everyday lives. “Probably you wouldn’t notice until you walked into the book store and saw ‘Mercyhurst University’ on a sweatshirt,” Adovasio said. “On an operational level, since we already operate as a university, you wouldn’t notice.”
The real changes to the college would be strategic. Because the college has a small endowment, most of its income comes from tuition. If demographic predictions come true and fewer high school graduates enroll in college in the coming years, this could make it hard for Mercyhurst to operate.
“We don’t want the college to start changing its character, but we need to grow. Money has to come from somewhere,” Gamble said. This growth will likely occur in the graduate programs, adult education programs and associate programs at Mercyhurst’s other campuses.
Transitioning to university status would help Mercyhurst market these programs, especially in regions unfamiliar with Mercyhurst’s reputation and in other countries, where a ‘college’ is more like high school.
“Outside of Mercyhurst there is a way in which ‘University’ has more cache,” Tobin said.
Creating an overarching Mercyhurst University to include all of the smaller entities would help “brand” the college, according to Adovasio.
“When you market the college it becomes much more difficult to market North East, the graduate programs, the adult college….When you put them under the envelope of a university you make it easier to market them,” Adovasio said.
This is especially true of the master’s degrees, which would leave a much greater impression coming from a university. “We can’t market graduate programs from a college,” Gamble said.
According to Adovasio, undergraduates would benefit from the growth of these programs as well, with access to things like improved science facilities, and with a learning environment enhanced by the presence of more graduate and faculty research.
The timeline for gaining university status depends mostly on how long it takes for students and faculty to get on board, according to Gamble.
Now that the board has approved research, MSG and the administration will begin working together to gauge the reactions of students. Most likely this will take place through forums, polls and emails sent to email@example.com.
“I think really the students should be 100 percent in favor of this. They have nothing to lose and a lot to gain,” Gamble said.
To view a transcript of Gamble’s speech, go to www.mercyhurst.edu/about/presidents-message/consideration-of-college-to-university-status/.