College mergers aren’t common occurrences, yet Magdalen College in Warner, N.H., and Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, N.H., sat down to talk about uniting their institutions. While the merger did not take place, the talks still produced many good results for both colleges.
Thomas More’s president, William Fahey, pointed out that both colleges share a common heritage, both having among their founders college professor Peter Sampo. Now retired, Sampo helped start Magdalen College in 1973, then Thomas More in the late 1970s, acting as its president from 1978 to 2006.
Moreover, both schools have a Great Books curriculum, and Fahey noted that the two share many common friends such as individual families who have sent students to both colleges.
“We found we had a lot of things in common — mostly our strong and faithful Catholic identities,” said Magdalen’s president, Jeffrey Karls, who was involved in discussions with two Thomas More presidents over the course of 16 months.
He believes the idea to merge — Karls clarified that they preferred defining it not as a merger, which suggests a business approach, but as a reunification or a unification — was conceived when the college presidents traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with Pope Benedict XVI on April 17, 2008. There, Karls met Jeffrey Nelson, who had come to the Thomas More presidency a short while before.
“We said, ‘Let’s get together and see what we can do to support one another through a collaborative effort of our two institutions,’” Karls recalled. As a result, the boards of trustees suggested they look into the possibility. Talks started but were shelved when Nelson resigned his presidency.
After Fahey became Thomas More’s new president, the conversation resumed seriously in the fall of 2009.
“There was a general sense that both colleges shared a desire to make a positive impact for the sake of the Church in New England,” said Fahey. They asked how to “best serve our families and students and the Church … and improve the coeffectiveness of the institutions.”
The presidents and board chairmen then started mapping out what this new institution would look like.
There were several things to consider.
For one, the schools have slightly different approaches to the liberal arts. Thomas More is more lecture-oriented, while Magdalen uses the Socratic seminar approach. Karls said the talks looked at “where we could bring these to complement one another, and we accomplished that.”
Arts was another area discussed. Thomas More has a “Way of Beauty” program with an artist and writer in residence. Magdalen has a very strong sacred music and liturgy program. They seemed ripe for complementing each other.
Why not move forward because of the many positives?
“We were trying to make this happen too quickly,” Karls said. “We were both so energized and enthusiastic we were almost forcing it to happen.”
While the merger didn’t happen, both presidents see many positive results coming from the talks.
“Both institutions decided they could pursue their mission more effectively as independent institutions,” explained Fahey. “Most of the positive things we talked about we could achieve while maintaining the independence.”
Karls did find the talks “presented a wonderful opportunity for the schools to recognize the dynamics of the two schools and to respect them, and it got us to be friends,” he said. “We decided to take our time with this and not force it, but we developed a mutual respect for both schools, and we’re looking forward to finding ways to collaborate and, perhaps down the road, to even be affiliated with one another.”
“We’re going to be allies working on certain events,” Fahey said.
Hence, plans for this fall to look for opportunities to collaborate, support and build a collegial relationship with one another. They plan to look at every aspect of college life, from social and sporting events to those involving public witness to the faith.
Already, Thomas More has brought both student bodies together for a New England contra dance event. Thomas More sophomore Marielle Gage said there’s talk about having an intramural soccer league next year for the two colleges.
“It’s a great idea because it’s a small Catholic school within an hour,” said Gage, “and we have a lot in common. Drawing us close together would be a good thing.”
Because the colleges are approximately 48 miles apart, Thomas More’s Fahey also envisions the schools joining forces for pro-life events such as prayerful protests outside the city of Manchester’s abortion business.
“Visually, it is making an immediate impact” if the two schools join together, said Fahey. “The visual is then communicating the spiritual good of praying and witnessing to the Catholic truth in the city.”
He also hopes both colleges can travel together to the annual March for Life in Washington.
“It would be awesome if both schools could start going together” to the march, said Magdalen sophomore Ava Voissem.
“If people wanted, there would be so many good things we could do together,” Gage agreed. “It would take a great sacrifice for both schools, but it has a lot of potential for good. If students are willing to do that, it would be phenomenal.”
On his part, Karls is quite optimistic. He notes The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College categorizes both colleges as “Joyfully Catholic.”
“Bringing two joyful Catholic institutions together has to take into consideration the spiritual dimension of what this means in our apostolate,” he said. “And that’s where we turn to God and the Holy Spirit and ask, ‘What do you want of these two schools? Do you want them to be merged or have a good, solid affiliation with each other where they complement each other and yet respect the founding charisms of the two schools?’”
Karls believes it’s a matter of putting it in God’s hands and taking the appropriate time to allow this to develop “in a very organic way to determine how best everyone can serve holy Mother Church in this apostolic work of higher education.”
“We’re all building up the universal Church,” said Karls, “and educating Catholic lay men and women to raise very good Catholic families or respond to God’s call to priesthood or religious life. And we strive to do this responding to God’s grace.”
Said Gage, “Even though the merger didn’t quite work out, we’re looking forward to a stronger relationship with them. With our combined strength, we can be sure Catholic schools in New Hampshire have a larger presence.”
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.