New year will bring more details on Jefferson, Philadelphia U merger

 Thomas Jefferson University in Center City will merge with Philadelphia University in East Falls. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Thomas Jefferson University in Center City will merge with Philadelphia University in East Falls. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Thomas Jefferson University is a 190-year-old medical school that is trying to function more like a startup. Philadelphia University, meanwhile, is a former textile school that has reinvented itself over the past two decades, now offering more than 70 academic programs.

Next year, the two institutions plan to become one.

“We found a partner in Thomas Jefferson that had similar DNA to us,” says Stephen Spinelli, president of Philadelphia University. “They believe that turning passion into profession was important.”

Many of the details for what a new integrated school will look like aren’t yet clear, but both Spinelli and Jefferson CEO Stephen Klasko say innovation, entrepreneurship and “design thinking” will drive curriculum. The organizations will spell out a formal agreement sometime in 2016.

“The needs of society are changing,” says Spinelli. “The needs of students, the needs of millennials, the needs of education are changing dramatically, and the old formats aren’t changing as rapidly. A lot of schools are embedded in old-model thinking.”

The schools are about the same size, with roughly 3,000 to 4,000 students at each. Jefferson’s campus, located in Center City, offers an urban experience, while Philly U. has a leafier setting in the East Falls neighborhood.

But along with that geographical difference, there are other factors that have some outside observers questioning the move.

“It strikes me as a strange combination,” says Lawton Robert Burns, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where he researches hospital acquisitions.

For example, Burns says the faculty at the respective schools don’t have much overlap in terms of content. And it isn’t clear how the merging of balance sheets will save costs in the long run.

“The risk is that is what we call ‘non-related diversification.’ Your diversifying into a field where you have no prior experience or knowledge … and so it is not clear what they are going to share that makes each one better,” he says.

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