By Gary Weedman, Johnson University President (2007–2018)
During the December 2012 annual meeting of our regional accrediting association, Bill Behrman, president of Florida Christian College (FCC), and I headed to lunch together. Out of the blue he asked: “What would you think about Johnson University Florida?” I was taken aback by the question. We had spent 11 months, ending the previous September, in conversations with another sister school about a merger/acquisition, which ended without success. It was hard work added to the normal tasks of the school year. We had delayed updating our strategic plan and preparing for our next accreditation report, leaving much work to do. I replied to Behrman’s question: “Thank you, dear brother, but I think I would be hung in effigy if I suggested starting another merger/acquisition discussion!” He was disappointed in my answer but responded with his typical Christian grace.
A few weeks later, in January 2013, L. D. Campbell, chair of the JU board, called me, recounting a recent conversation he had with Jim Book, chair of the FCC board, affirming that if Johnson University acquired FCC, the board would “step out of the way the next day” and support the merger. Book later said that he would consider JUFL second only to his congregation in Kissimmee in terms of his support. Campbell asked me to call Book and at least listen to his proposal.
Several salient issues impacted such a decision: mission fit, finances, accreditation, and local support.
Johnson’s mission, “To educate students for Christian ministries and other strategic vocations framed by the Great Commission in order to extend the kingdom of God among all nations,” was inclusive of the FCC mission, which focused more narrowly on church vocations. Church vocational ministry has always been the largest major of Johnson and it continued to be at JUFL. Significantly more scholarship assistance has historically supported these majors and that continued at JUFL.
Of course, finances are always a major consideration for mergers/acquisitions. FCC had a long history of annual deficits, spending more each year than the income covered. In fact, the school had lost its accreditation in 2013 largely because of financial instability. Bank loans and other indebtedness amounted to $10,000,000. Johnson had the capacity to cover those debts and to make needed maintenance on the property as well as construct a $4,470,000 Commons building. These financial improvements resulted in an appraisal of $24,000,000, almost double the amount in 2013.
It was necessary to ensure that JUFL gain accreditation, which would enable students to qualify for federal assistance (e.g., Pell Grants) as well as other forms of financial income. The process for accreditation for separate campuses occasions great scrutiny by the regional association and a commitment of time and resources of the home institution. Johnson achieved this accreditation without stipulation. In fact, it was reported to me that the executive director of our regional accrediting agency said in a meeting in a neighboring state discussing the possibility of small colleges considering mergers: “If you want to know how to do mergers, talk to the folks at Johnson University. They do mergers right!”
The challenge of local support: Who better to engender local support in Florida than David and Margaret Eubanks? They agreed to move to the Florida campus “for a few months” until things settled in. The few months stretched to “after Christmas,” “after Easter,” one year, two years! They are well-known among many old friends of Johnson who live in the region. They traveled almost weekly to congregations, introducing JUFL. If I was told once, twice, more times than I can remember: “The smartest thing you’ve done since you’ve been president was to send the Eubanks to Florida!” I replied I don’t send them anywhere; I meekly ask them, “Would you consider going…?” Their involvement helped to garner local support among many congregations.
Why did the merger not work?
We may need more distance before answering that question adequately. Some possibilities quickly come to mind: the difficulty of merging institutions that have different cultural heritages; not adapting adequately to the rapidly growing Latino environment; the loss of some local support we had anticipated; or our inability to identify and cultivate mission-aligned pools of students.
The good news is that 1022 students received a quality Christian education in JUFL’s eleven-year history; 326 (with one more class to go) graduated with more than a third majoring in congregational ministry; and we are not likely to have lost any value of our net financial assets.