Why We Merged: Jefferson, Philly U. Presidents Explain Their Shocking Move

Steve Klasko and Steve Spinelli want to "revolutionize" higher education in Philly.

Stephen Klasko (left) shakes hands with Stephen Spinelli as Philadelphia University and Thomas Jefferson University formally announce a merger agreement.

Stephen Klasko (left) shakes hands with Stephen Spinelli as Philadelphia University and Thomas Jefferson University formally announce a merger agreement. (Photo by Jared Shelly)

The merger agreement between Philadelphia University and Thomas Jefferson University was nothing short of a shocker. A medical and nursing school in Center City merging with a design, engineering and fashion school in East Falls? The two presidents met for the first time just six months ago, making them strange bedfellows for sure.

I caught up with Stephen Spinelli, president of Philadelphia University and Stephen Klasko, president of Thomas Jefferson University, on Thursday after a press conference on the Philly U campus. Their excitement was palpable and they frequently called the move “a revolution in higher education.” Through our conversation it became obvious that the ability to scale up both universities proved too tempting to pass up.

Consider these numbers about the combined university:

  • 7,500: The number students in both universities, about 50 percent graduate and 50 percent undergraduate.
  • 78,000: Combined alumni base
  • It’s now the fifth largest university in Philadelphia.

“It’s a crowded marketplace and we’re a small school. We’ve got national awards for our curriculum and a 95 percent job placement rate, but it’s hard to get through all the noise,” said Spinelli. “All the sudden, we’ve got scale. I think the value of a Philadelphia University degree just got recognized in a big way.”

“Overnight,” he continued, “we advanced the school’s mission two or three generations with the signing of that agreement. How do you not get excited about that?”

Klasko said that after the move, “we believe that we will be one of the big five” universities in Philly.

The combined university will certainly feature some functional changes in the near-term like Philly U students taking classes in Center City and Jefferson students playing on Philly U athletic teams. Philly U won’t change its name right away but it’s unclear what the future holds.

When asked who reached out to who first, both Steve’s played coy and were careful not to reveal much about the genesis of the partnership. But when they did meet, a 15-minute conversation turned into an hour-long meeting where the both laid out their thoughts on what’s right and wrong with higher education.

“I didn’t see it in the beginning. I didn’t know anything about Philadelphia University and then in Match.com terms, we virtually fell in love,” said Klasko. “I thought, ‘wow this is not what I expected.’ ”

The combined institution aims to blend design and liberal arts thinking with the analytical learning crucial for students in science and health care careers. Whether students become doctors or fashion designers, they’ll get a well-rounded education that helps them think entrepreneurially, the two presidents said.

Does that mean techies and designers will team up to do a project around wearbles? It’s quite possible, said Spinelli, who said the integration between the two institutions will come slowly and thoughtfully over the next three years.

Both Klasko and Spinelli repeatedly said they hope to change how education is delivered so that modern, millennial students will respond to it.

“What if we start to really become the place that teaches millennials the way millennials want to learn?” said Klasko. “We want them, within constraints, to design some of their own curriculum because they know what they need. Some people learn by watching somebody do a PowerPoint presentation, some people don’t learn that way. Instead of saying ‘this is how we do it,’ we’re gonna basically say ‘you pay us a tuition to help you achieve your goals.’ That’s such a different model than exists in other universities.”

Spinelli agrees: “See, that’s the kind of student centricity that you don’t hear from anyone else.”

The next three years will reveal a lot about this partnership. Can a college really find synergy with students separated between a Center City campus and a tree-lined East Falls campus? Can design students and science students really coexist? Will scaling up make the school a local powerhouse that attracts talented students? Stay tuned.

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