Virginia Intermont seeks merger with Florida college, may retain Baptist ties

A Baptist college in Southwest Virginia that has struggled with finanical viablity is seeking to merge with a Florida university known for its focus on business education.

By Robert Dilday

Virginia Intermont College, a 130-year-old institution in Bristol, Va., with ties to Virginia Baptists, has announced plans to seek merger this July with Webber International University, based in Babson Park, Fla.

In a Jan. 31 press statement, Virginia Intermont announced a “memorandum of understanding” to initiate merger discussions with Webber International, an independent school founded in 1927 as one of the nation’s first business schools for women. Now co-ed, Webber International continues a strong emphasis on business, offering both bachelor’s and master’s degrees, including the MBA.

Webber apparently would retain Intermont’s campus — and its name — if it follows a model in a 2011 merger with St. Andrew’s University, a school with historic Presbyterian ties in Laurinburg, N.C.

VI“A few years ago, the Webber board [of directors] made a decision to pursue a new model of higher education: small, student-centric teaching schools offering their own flavor of quality higher education, operating within a larger framework which allows greater resilience, opportunity and economies of scale,” Webber International said in a press release. “The idea is that small schools banding together are stronger and can offer a better experience for their students, their employees and their communities.”

Virginia Intermont, with about 500 students, offers a liberal arts education and fields a highly regarded equestrian team, which competes nationally. But it has struggled with financial viability since at least 2007, which prompted the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges — Intermont’s primary accreditation agency — to place it on probation that year.

Last summer, according to the Bristol Herald Courier, Intermont began seeking a merger partner after the commission voted to drop its membership for financial issues. After losing an appeal of that decision, the school filed suit against SACS in federal court in Georgia, which left its accreditation temporarily in place. Last September, a federal judge granted a motion to stay the case with both Intermont and SACS to report back to the court by March 6.

If approved, the merger would allow Intermont to share Webber’s SACS accreditation. In addition to SACS, the U.S. Department of Education and State Council of Higher Education for Virginia must sign off on the merger.

Intermont was founded in 1884 by a Baptist minister to offer higher education to women. The school, now co-ed, has related to the Baptist General Association of Virginia for most of its existence.

College officials have expressed an interest in retaining those ties, a top BGAV executive said, but it’s not clear what form those might take. Currently the BGAV nominates a portion of Intermont’s board of trustees and includes the school in its budget. This year the allocation is $1,000.

“Virginia Intermont has been very good about keeping the BGAV informed about its process and its talks with different possibilities for merger,” said BGAV executive director John Upton. “They also have made it very clear that they do want to maintain a relationship with the BGAV. We’ll be getting together and start looking at what a covenant between the BGAV and Intermont might look like.”

Intermont president E. Clorisa Phillips said in a statement, “The VI trustees and I are thrilled about the proposed merger. Although VI has much to do to shore up its financial position, this opportunity will greatly benefit our students through expanded program offerings and more effective use of resources.”