St. Joseph’s University and University of the Sciences merged institutions and IT departments in June 2022.

Nov 21 2023

Integrating IT Operations When Colleges Merge

IT leaders share lessons on how to successfully navigate a merger or acquisition.

Higher education mergers are complex and can pose a logistical nightmare. IT leaders who have integrated IT operations successfully say it requires careful planning and a phased, multiyear approach. Saint Joseph’s University CIO Francis DiSanti is doing exactly that by prioritizing the most critical tasks first.

When the private Jesuit university in Philadelphia announced plans to acquire the financially struggling University of the Sciences, Saint Joseph’s leaders said they would merge in exactly one year, in June 2022.

Because leadership wanted to keep the student experience front and center, the IT staffers first focused on integrating student applications. They also worked to standardize enterprise resource planning system to unify student, finance and employee data. Other tasks, such as consolidating data centers and less critical apps, could wait.

“It was like the Noah’s Ark of systems: We had two of everything,” DiSanti says. “We needed to focus on a consistent student experience, and we needed to minimize complexity. We didn’t want ERP data fragmented in multiple places.”

Higher education’s ongoing enrollment troubles and declining revenue have forced some institutions to close their doors. A growing number of institutions have turned to mergers or acquisitions to survive, allowing them to share resources, operate more efficiently and save money while giving students more academic opportunities.

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On the IT front, mergers and acquisitions require IT departments to consolidate duplicative technology; standardize on hardware, software and security; and integrate IT staffs.

Integrating disparate applications and data is difficult because universities must decide which software to standardize on, then accurately migrate data without data loss or duplication, says IDC analyst Ashish Nadkarni.

“The benefit with colleges is they are not 24/7. They do get breaks in the year when students are not in class, so they can go offline and service their infrastructure,” he says.

Merging Institutions Requires a Realistic Integration Timeline

The Saint Joseph’s merger with USciences was a win for both institutions. USciences’ enrollment had declined in recent years, dwindling to about 2,300 students, so the merger gave it financial stability. Saint Joseph’s, which had 7,600 students, bolstered its educational offerings by adding USciences’ health programs.

When DiSanti took inventory of universities’ technology, he discovered that they each operated a pair of data centers and that they used 90 applications, most of which were duplicative. He also needed to integrate USciences’ IT team with his.

LEARN MORE: Managed services lend expert support to IT departments.

Developing a realistic integration timeline is key, DiSanti says. The two universities used roughly 25 percent of the same applications, including Zoom, so moving them to one contract was straightforward. For the rest, he developed a multiyear strategy in which he prioritized application integration and deferred major infrastructure changes.

DiSanti categorized projects into three tiers of importance. The first tier, unifying student apps and core ERP systems, needed to be completed by the time the merger was finalized. “There were 10 major projects that emerged as tier one initiatives,” he says.

He and his now 60-person IT staff redesigned the university’s website, unified the portal experience and migrated USciences’ users to Saint Joseph’s identity and access management and service management platforms. They also moved USciences’ students and staff from Microsoft 365 to Google Workspace.

DiSanti hired consultants to help migrate student data from USciences’ student information system (SIS) to Saint Joseph’s on-premises software. They then migrated HR data from both universities to Workday, a cloud-based ERP system.

The IT department completed the 10 projects just in time for the newly combined university’s first fall semester.

Francis DiSanti headshot
It was a heavy lift, but we got the student data converted, and the set of student services was absolutely the same across both campuses.”

Francis DiSanti CIO, Saint Joseph’s University

In year two, the university moved its financial systems to Workday and integrated its alumni/advancement data with Saint Joseph’s on-premises software. This school year, Saint Joseph’s IT department will focus on consolidating its infrastructure and continue integrating more apps to a common platform.

DiSanti will also begin work on another merger. Saint Joseph’s recently announced that it would acquire a second university: Pennsylvania College of Health Sciences.

“The playbook remains the same,” he says.

Tackling ERP Integration Is Vital in Higher Ed Mergers

In New Jersey, Montclair State University merged with nearby Bloomfield College in July, saving Bloomfield from closure. The merger is unique, combining a 21,700-student public university with a small, 1,200-student private college.

The newly named Bloomfield College of Montclair State University will remain a distinct campus. This school year, the two campuses maintained separate classes and admissions. But as administrators develop a strategy for academic programs, they are working hard to integrate operations, including IT, says Montclair interim CIO Jerry DeSanto.

Montclair’s IT staffers installed a fiber connection to link the two campuses, which are 7 miles apart. They repositioned Bloomfield’s HR and finance systems to the cloud using Workday.

They plan to move the two separate SIS solutions to Workday as well, but it’s a three-year project. As a stopgap measure, the IT department plans to migrate Bloomfield’s in-house student system to Montclair’s data center, powered by more than 100 virtualized Hewlett Packard Enterprise servers. Doing so was important because Bloomfield’s existing data center is outdated, with aging servers and storage, DeSanto says.

Now, he and his newly combined 100-person IT staff are consolidating additional applications and upgrading Bloomfield’s technology. Over the next six months, they will migrate Bloomfield to Montclair’s Avaya IP phone system. They will also unify help desks and move Bloomfield to Montclair’s ServiceNow software.

“In addition to the many planned IT projects, we’re tackling things as we encounter them,” DeSanto says.

READ MORE: Get the technology side of mergers and acquisitions right.

Bolstering Cybersecurity in a Higher Education Merger

In a merger or acquisition, universities are not only adding another institution. They can also inherit security flaws and vulnerabilities.

When Delaware State University acquired Wesley College in 2021, the smaller, private college was beset with financial difficulties. Vice President of IT and CIO Darrel McMillon assessed Wesley’s IT infrastructure and found the data center was full of aging servers and networking equipment.

For security reasons, he didn’t connect the two campus’ data centers together.

“We didn’t know how they dealt with viruses and software upgrades, but we knew it was an older environment and things had not been updated, so we kept it separate from DSU,” McMillon says.

DSU’s main data center had enough capacity to absorb the 500 students and 70 faculty and staff at Wesley College, now called the DSU Downtown campus.

So, the IT staff migrated Wesley’s users and ERP data to DSU’s state-of-the-art infrastructure. That gave users access to DSU’s applications, and it brought the new downtown campus up to speed on DSU’s security standards, which include next-generation firewalls and endpoint security.

“We built a point-to-point connection between the campuses so they could connect to applications and data on the main campus,” McMillon says.

Photos by Saint Joseph’s University

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