The “Sun Bird” Tradeoff: An ASU Merger Update

By, Rick Beitman

In the ongoing saga that is the Thunderbird and ASU merger, the Chicago-based Higher Learning Commission (HLC), the accrediting body for both institutions, has approved the linkup. In a November 24 e-mail, Thunderbird President Dr. Penley and ASU Deputy Provost Dr. Mark Searle informed students of the integration of Thunderbird School of Global Management into Arizona State University.


The transaction is expected to close in December 2014. Following the HLC decision, Dr. Searle appeared in the AT&T Auditorium to field questions from a student audience on Monday, November 24. – Sentiments from the student body were mixed. Concerns centered on a few themes such as degree programs, tuition, and the HLC decision in general, as inquirers repeatedly asked similar questions about those topics.


Thunderbird’s flagship degree, the Global MBA, will become the Masters of Global Management (MGM). While the name will change, substantively the program will not as the curriculum, the brand, and the faculty will remain the same. (Some students did lament the impending departure of certain faculty members.) Additionally, there are no plans to move campus, so programs will continue in the same place as always.


As far as rankings go, not having a MBA will presumably impact Thunderbird in MBA rankings. However, that is not automatically a cause for concern as Dr. Searle reported that Thunderbird was the number one school in international business before it ever even had a MBA program. Hearkening to earlier days, the Masters of International Management (MIM) was the flagship program that carved Thunderbird’s way into its niche in international business. – Ultimately, rankings vary from publication to publication and are contingent on their criteria.


In terms of dates, originally Thunderbird and ASU had proposed that all students currently enrolled under the teach-out would receive degrees from Thunderbird as the accrediting institution through 2016. This would have allowed 18 months before transferring all accrediting authority to ASU. However, HLC, under its more stringent policy would only permit Thunderbird to issue its own degrees for one year, meaning ASU would issue all degrees as the accrediting authority after December 2015.


While it was not ideal, Dr. Searle clearly stated that it was based on HLC policy and indicated that the decision would likely not be reversed, as there is no appeal process. – Some students did take issue with which institution would be the accrediting authority as they had expected it to be Thunderbird. Others expressed dismay over the uncertainty of the physical appearance of future diplomas, wanting it to be ‘special’ as it has been before.


Regardless of which institution is responsible for accreditation, all Thunderbird degrees will be issued by the Thunderbird School of Global Management. In 2016, this will continue to be true, however it will be as a part of the consortium of schools at Arizona State University. – All students enrolled in current programs will receive their expected degrees (provided they meet the requirements). Thus, current MBA students will get a MBA, not a MGM. The MA and MS students will receive their respective degrees as well.


Tuition came up a few times; it was inquired if there would now be ‘instate rates’. Dr. Searle advised that tuition would not be changing as of right now. While instate rates apply to undergraduate education, Dr. Searle referred to Thunderbird as a ‘premium program’ and its tuition would remain the same. Likewise, specialty schools such as the W. P. Carey School of Business and the Sandra Day O’Connor School of Law also charge a premium. This is in line with charging the ‘market rate’ for these premium programs as mentioned by ASU President Dr. Crow in his visit to campus on October 3.


Logically, tuition would not change as the program will not substantively change. Ultimately, the Arizona Board of Regents approves tuition rates. – Fortunately, ASU will not add additional fees for the time being. However, in January 2015, Thunderbird students will recognize immediate benefits under the ASU umbrella. T-Birds would receive ASU ID cards and would gain access to all ASU libraries, however the IBIC would remain exclusive to Thunderbird students.


Benefits will not stop with the libraries, as T-Birds will also be allowed use of all ASU recreational facilities at ASU West and the other campuses. T-Birds would also get ASU discounts to fine arts events. – Students will retain their Thunderbird scholarships (provided they continue to meet requirements), but will also be eligible to apply for ASU scholarships. Dr. Searle also mentioned that ASU was looking into providing transportation in between the campuses.


In terms of academics, T-Birds would be able to take ASU courses, provided they contribute to the appropriate degree of study. In terms of career development, T-Birds would also get immediate access to ASU career services in addition to the Career Management Center (CMC). And of course, the obvious benefit of being able to participate in a larger ASU career fair is that there are more employers present.


While some may still have their reservations about this merger, it is occurring out of necessity. In 2012, it became clear that Thunderbird’s financial model was failing. According to James Scott, the registrar, Thunderbird could no longer be standalone. This situation led to the search for a partner, which resulted in the Laureate transaction that was not approved by HLC.


Now that Thunderbird has an HLC-approved partner, ASU can shoulder the financial burdens. Of ASU assuming its debts, Dr. Searle stated that Thunderbird would be able to continue its ‘distinctive approach’ to cultural, language, and business understanding. Dr. Searle believes that Thunderbird is ‘not just a piece of dirt in Glendale’ and that there is indeed something materially different.


Under ASU, Thunderbird will remain unique, as it becomes the sixteenth school within its aggregation. Dr. Searle says ASU knows the ‘mystique’ exists and that they want to ‘sustain and enhance it’. That being said, Dr. Searle is very open and hopes T-Birds will ask questions rather than succumb to the rumor mill. – While there are tradeoffs in any transaction, what Thunderbird will gain with an ASU partner is far greater than any perceived loss. Most importantly, Thunderbird’s lights will remain on and the doors will be open to welcome the Fall 2015 cohort to join in its mystique.


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