Schools accredited by the Commission on Accrediting of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) that are considering a merger should download and peruse a key ATS petition early in the process. That’s the advice of Tom Tanner, director of accreditation and institutional evaluation at ATS, who points school leaders to the Petition for Change of Ownership or Governing Control (available at bit.ly/ATS-petition). The form is appropriate not only for merging schools, but for any ATS-accredited institution that is planning to alter its governance structure through partnership or consolidation.
When Tanner joined ATS in 2012, the association was seeing an uptick in the number of schools considering mergers and other forms of consolidation. However, at the time, the ATS Board of Commissioners did not have guidelines for member schools or clear criteria for its own decision-making process with regard to the approval of mergers. The commissioners approved the petition in response to the growing number of mergers, which, since the 2008–09 recession, have averaged almost one every four months.
A required, but also illuminating, document
Submitting the Petition for Change in Ownership or Governing Control is required by the ATS Commission before a school changes its governing structure. But the form also serves as a guide for thinking through the ramifications of proposed structural changes. Divided into 13 sections, the form focuses on such areas as mission, constituencies, educational effectiveness, financial and physical resources, and federal funding. Its opening paragraphs state its two overarching goals:
1) that the educational needs of students impacted by the change are appropriately addressed, and 2) that the resulting entity continues to adhere to all applicable membership criteria, standards, and procedures.
Talk to the accreditors early
Tanner urges schools to contact the ATS accreditation staff in their initial planning stages. “We are usually aware of some of the potential challenges that member institutions may face,” says Tanner. Accreditation staff members press school leaders to think about both logistical questions and the effect that institutional changes will have on their constituencies. “Sometimes it is harder to address the emotional or cultural questions than the logistical ones,” Tanner says.
Consider the clarity of proposed governance structures
Each plan to merge comes with myriad decisions that ultimately affect which stakeholders will hold power in the new arrangement. In particular, when freestanding theological schools seek to affiliate with universities, they find several options for restructuring their governance. In one common model, one or more members of the seminary board are added to the university board. In another model, a seminary advisory board is established, which may or may not engage with the university board. Working with the petition and the ATS accrediting staff can facilitate clarity in these arrangements. For example, Tanner says, “It is helpful if the advisory board has a clear job description or charter from the university that describes their powers and reporting mechanisms.”
Get your ducks in a row before the public announcement
During initial planning, many institutions choose to confine conversations to the presidents and board chairs of the merging entities. Tanner says that for many schools, “it is probably best if the discussions do not advance to the public phase too early, because one does not want to alarm constituencies unnecessarily. Besides, the merger may never materialize.”
By considering the questions in the petition, and through discussions with accrediting staff members, school leaders can anticipate concerns from their communities, gather the right information, and formulate responses.
Tanner notes that the petition was intentionally designed to prompt discussions like this among school leaders and accreditation staff. The earlier it is considered, the better it can be used to promote a clear and well-planned process. In fact, he says, “We usually ask school leaders to have their answers to the petition document handy during our first consultation.”