SNU to merge with UNR

Phoenix Larsen, Editor

After more than 50 years as Sierra Nevada College – and then briefly as Sierra Nevada University – Lake Tahoe’s only four-year college is slated to be acquired by the University of Nevada, Reno. The deal, which was inked during the summer, is expected to be consummated next year.
News of the acquisition came shortly after nine SNU professors were laid off. The school has been beset by budget cuts and layoffs for at least four years, a byproduct of declining enrollment and tuition revenues. The college’s board of trustees voted to gift the campus and assets to UNR, with the hope that the move would avoid a crash-and-burn scenario of bankruptcy and closure.
The merger and acquisition are expected to be complete by July of 2022, pending approval by the college’s accrediting body and the U.S. Department of Education. SNU’s board of trustees and the Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents both rubber-stamped the deal.
When the deal is complete, the SNU name and corporate entity – SNU is a private, non-profit liberal arts college – will dissolve, and the campus will become an extension of UNR. Jill Heaton, the new executive vice president and provost, was hired on Aug. 3 to replace outgoing president Rob Valli to help spearhead the transition. She shares executive duties with Sue Johnson, the executive vice president of business and finance for SNU, as part of the executive transition team.
“The first step of the process was for the board of regents at UNR and the board of trustees at SNU to say, ‘We want to do this,’” Heaton said. “Then we had to formerly, at that point, notify the regulators that license us as institutes of higher education. Two weeks ago, we [the executive transition team for SNU and UNR] sent letters of intent to the U.S. Department of Education formerly requesting that UNR initiate the process of the acquisition of SNU.”
Current SNU students who plan to continue their studies after the acquisitions will be given the option to complete their “SNU” degree program, or transfer to UNR. The schools are working out the details for potential transfers, and plan to offer detailed one-on-one counseling in the near future.
Many small, tuition-dependent colleges have suffered financial troubles, partly as a result of a demographic trend of declining college-age students.
In a study done by Inside Higher Education, it estimated that since 2017, long before the pandemic hit the United States in March of 2020, 156 private universities across the country shut down due to increased financial stress. The COVID-19 pandemic further strained enrollment at many colleges, including SNU.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that in the last decade there has been a drop of enrollment in college students of 2.6 million, or 13%, due to lower birth rates in the United States. If trends continue, another drop of 11-15% is predicted.
“We keep hearing these headlines that the birth rates in the United States are plummeting. Fewer kids being born means fewer high school students. And with fewer high school students, that means fewer are going to college,” Heaton said. “Every institute of higher education is competing for different students. COVID was also devastating to small institutions that didn’t have a lot of capital reserve or credit lines. That is what happened with SNU. It was financially unsustainable.”
Brayden Stephenson, a junior majoring in journalism and sustainability, has felt the impact of the acquisition as a student who chose to pursue a degree at SNU when he became part of the snowboard team his freshman year. His initial concerns with the future of the school began when former SNU President Rob Valli took the reins in the fall of 2020.
“When I heard about the merger, I felt conflicted,” Stephenson said. “President Valli kept saying things, discussing the new vision for our school without any details and I was wondering what he was alluding to. A week later we got the news we were being acquired by UNR and he exited his role.”
Heaton has assured current SNU students that her primary goal during this transition is to ensure students will continue to have the intimate college experience that they desired when they enrolled at the school. Yet, with so many of the details still in process and many unknown factors, it has created a climate of uncertainty for students.
“I am sure I am not the only one in the position that feels conflicted about this acquisition. Along with that, there is so much going on with both students and professors. It is not unlikely that there are more students missing out on opportunities and lacking full support [during this process.] It is an interesting thing to be a college student and questioning the livelihood of your education and the sustainability of your college,” Stephenson said.
Dr. Andy Rost, the new dean of academic affairs, has been with SNU since 2003, when he first came on as an adjunct professor in the science department. He says his role is to support the faculty to ensure students at SNU receive the quality education promised when they applied. Backing up what Heaton said, he has assured that the current students of SNU will continue to have a similar experience once the acquisition is complete.
“There is so much about this acquisition still in the works. Understanding the complexity of the issue, we have to be mindful that saying ‘I don’t know’ is the best answer because giving the wrong answer is worse,” Rost said. “It is not that people are being coy or obtuse. Part of the merger is that we have accreditors and the board of education paying attention to how we do this and what we do. Those are significant regulatory compliances we must pay attention to and how we do it in the context of those bodies.”
Rost encourages students and faculty to consider the merger an opportunity for SNU to finally achieve financial stability with a land-grant university that has operated for nearly 100 years, since its founding in1874.
“There are folks on campus that are going to be resistant because they don’t want to give up what we had. It was wonderful, but the fact of the matter is it won’t be there anymore,” Rost said. “I am a river guy. In the world of rivers, as you are running a river you must be flexible, you have to be resilient. You have to be good with and embrace leaving plan A and going on whatever plan presents itself to you.”