Metro

Wheelock College, BU are discussing a merger

Wheelock College.
David L Ryan/Globe Staff
Wheelock College.

Wheelock College, a 130-year-old institution that has recently confronted financial struggles, is in formal discussions about a possible merger with Boston University, representatives of both schools said Tuesday.

In a phone interview, president David Chard said Wheelock remains dedicated to its mission of educating students in teaching and social work — its areas of expertise — but financial realities make that nearly impossible as a standalone college.

“We could continue to exist on our own, but it’s a very risky environment to do that in,” said Chard, who took over last year from longtime president Jackie Jenkins Scott. He announced the potential merger in an e-mail to students, faculty, and staff Tuesday.

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BU confirmed the merger talks in a statement but declined to provide further specifics.

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Wheelock, which enrolls approximately 1,000 undergraduate and graduate students on its Fenway campus, has been in financial peril for several years. In an effort to save money, the school recently put its president’s house on the market and tried to sell one of its dorms. In June, school officials said they were uncertain about the future of their undergraduate program.

Chard said a committee of administrators, staff, and trustees has been working on the merger over the summer. The school solicited proposals from colleges across the country and decided on BU’s plan, Chard said in the phone interview. If it does not happen, he said, Wheelock has other schools interested in merging.

If the deal comes together, Wheelock’s School of Education, Child Life, and Family Studies would merge with BU’s School of Education to create the Wheelock College of Education and Human Development. Other programs at Wheelock would merge with similar programs at BU, Chard said.

Wheelock College
David Chard.

Mergers are considered risky and difficult in higher education, but experts expect more of them as smaller schools struggle in an era of declining college applicants and students increasingly wary of taking on large debt.

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Last year the Boston Conservatory merged with the Berklee College of Music. Andover Newton Theological Seminary sold its Newton campus and agreed to become part of Yale Divinity School.

Wheelock is located down the street from Boston University’s South Campus, the part of the university on the south side of the Massachusetts Turnpike that borders Brookline.

Chard said administrators will work with professors and staff of the two schools in the coming weeks to determine how the schools would integrate while preserving the mission of Wheelock. Chard said he did not know when the merger might be final.

Chard said many details are still undecided, including the exact structure of the academic programs in the new college and who would lead it. BU’s education college currently has an interim dean.

It also remains to be determined which college would grant diplomas to current students and whether tenured Wheelock faculty would keep that status at BU, Chard said.

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New undergraduate students to the new college would be admitted through BU and considered part of the BU student body, Chard’s e-mail said.

Tuesday’s announcement came as a surprise to students — but not necessarily an unwelcome one.

“I’ve heard that the school has had some financial problems, so if that is what’s going to keep them afloat, I am all for it,” said Will Friedland, 24, who is entering his second year of graduate school in Wheelock’s integrated elementary and special education program.

“I love the Wheelock community,” Friedland said in an interview via Facebook. “The teachers, staff, and students are all amazing, so hopefully that will stay the same as they move forward.”

He urged Wheelock and BU to consider input from students, staff, and faculty as the merger talks continue.

Klea Hima, a senior at Wheelock majoring in political science with a minor in communications, said the news was hard to process. She said she chose Wheelock specifically for its mission and its small campus.

“I do think the merger is for the best, but my concern is regarding the current students (specifically seniors) and what that means for us,” she said.

Chard said Wheelock has found a buyer for its president’s house, and he has already moved out.

In the final years of Jenkins Scott’s 12-year tenure, the school experienced myriad troubles, including an exodus of at least 18 staff and several scandals including a top administrator who resigned after she acknowledged using passages written by others, including Harvard University president Drew Faust, in a welcome letter to faculty.

The school is also the subject of federal discrimination complaints from two Jewish faculty members and greater scrutiny from academic accreditors.

Wheelock, like many small schools, has seen declining enrollment and applications. In 2014, the school accepted its largest freshman undergraduate class of 265. Wheelock was hoping to enroll 150 freshmen this fall; 145 ultimately arrived. The school’s graduate enrollment is also sliding. It enrolls about 330 graduate students and expects to welcome about 150 students this fall, according to administrators.

Wheelock saw its operating expenses outpace revenue by $2.6 million in 2016 and $2.5 million in 2015. Its endowment has also been shrinking, from $53.9 million in 2015 to $50 million in 2016, according to its financial statements.

At Wheelock, annual tuition for the upcoming school year is about $35,000; with room, board, and fees, the costs can climb to over $50,000. Tuition plus room and board at BU is about $67,000 per year.

Tuesday evening, BU said it “intends to honor the tuition rates and financial aid of all current Wheelock College students. They will not be asked to pay the rates associated with Boston University.’’

Deirdre Fernandes of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Natasha Mascarenhas contributed to this report. Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.