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Administrators and trustees at St. Bonaventure University and Hilbert College over the past year have discussed the possibility of a merger.

Now, to assist in the process, the two institutions are hiring special legal counsel and recruiting an executive-level director or project manager.

“We need some more hands to help us do this work,” said Cynthia Zane, president of Hilbert.

Within the next month or so, the schools expect to hire a person with upper-level management experience in a college or university setting to relieve the additional workload administrators on both campuses assumed during the past year of discussions.

Because both schools use the same law firm for their institutional needs, they also had to hire a separate firm to examine legal questions associated with partnering in a closer and more formal manner.

Recent grants of $175,000 from the John R. Oishei Foundation and $20,000 from the Western New York Foundation are helping pay for the additional expenses, which also include retention of a consulting and research firm.

Hilbert, a campus of 1,100 students on South Park Avenue in Hamburg, and St. Bonaventure, which has about 2,300 students on its campus near Olean, announced last fall that they would study the potential for some type of merger.

While administrators at both schools said their institutions aren’t currently in fiscal trouble, they acknowledged that the market for students is soft, and colleges and universities need to be much more efficient and affordable if they are to thrive going forward.

“We’re in this very profound demographic shift, within a diocese where there are seven Catholic colleges,” said Zane.

Indeed, the Diocese of Buffalo has more Catholic colleges than any diocese in the country aside from the archdioceses of Philadelphia and New York City.

Zane said higher education faces many of the same challenges that led to upheaval within the health care industry, including the creation of new hospital systems and networks of health care providers.

“It’s following the same script,” she said. “The same kinds of changes are coming to higher education.”

The Oishei Foundation supported the efforts of the schools last December with an initial grant of $250,000. Oishei President Robert Gioia said the schools should be commended for exploring ways to make themselves stronger,

“By all means, we are delighted with the level of engagement and the progress they’re making,” said Gioia.

Trustees from each of the institutions have met at least three times since then.

Later this month, a joint committee consisting of seven trustees from each school’s board will meet for the first time to further the discussion in three major areas of impact: financial, academic programs and board governance.

A memorandum of understanding between the institutions would be the first major step toward more definitive merger talks, said Sister Margaret Carney, president of St. Bonaventure.

She characterized the current talks in terms of a construction project, saying the trustees were at the stage of “basically clearing the land.”

But both institutions have shown momentum to continue, and a memorandum of understanding could be worked out within a few months, said Carney.

College officials have preferred to use the phrase “strategic alliance,” rather than merger, in describing the goal they are working toward. But they said it is still too early in the process to know what changes are in store for the two institutions.

They viewed the recent foundation grants as affirmation of the difficult work the schools are doing to map out their futures.

“Education in this region is right now a focus of attention and it needs to be,” said Carney. “We’re well aware of the fact that in some ways we’re an experimental project that a lot of people are watching.”

email: jtokasz@buffnews.com