N.S. Ag College in merger talks with Dalhousie

The only college in Canada to operate as a division of a provincial ag department is in talks to shed that status and merge itself into Halifax’s Dalhousie University.

Nova Scotia Agricultural College (NSAC), based in Truro, announced Friday it has formally entered merger talks with Dalhousie, in the wake of a report urging such a marriage.

“We believe that together, Dalhousie and NSAC can more effectively compete with similar institutions on a national and international stage,” provincial Agriculture Minister John MacDonell said in a statement Friday, noting most ag schools in Canada have links with other large universities.

Details of the negotiation process are being worked out now, and the process is expected to take about 12 months, NSAC said.

In a separate open letter, Dalhousie president Tom Traves said the two schools would “work toward having the merger completed in time for the incoming class of fall 2012.”

The two institutions already have an arm’s-length relationship in which NSAC students receive bachelor’s and master’s degrees in science (agriculture) from Dalhousie, which also grants NSAC’s bachelor of technology and engineering diplomas. NSAC faculty have a presence on Dalhousie’s senate, while Dalhousie is represented on NSAC’s faculty council.

“Together, Dal and NSAC will be able to offer students a broader choice of interdisciplinary programs of study,” NSAC said.

“Efficiencies”

While all universities “need to look at ways to improve their financial positions in the years ahead,” the two schools said they don’t expect the move to save money in the short term, and noted “some transition costs can be expected.”

However, they said, “we believe there may be efficiencies that will keep costs down in the long run.”

There will be no changes for the coming school year as a result of these discussions, they added, noting the fall calendars for both universities are already set.

There are also no plans to reduce jobs as a result of these merger discussions, they said, although “there are sure to be opportunities to do business differently in future.”

NSAC employees, in the meantime, continue to be covered by NSAC’s collective agreements and “if there is any need to consider changes to collective agreements at either Dal or NSAC, formal processes will be used to guide those discussions.”

The discussions, however, will put the hiring of a new NSAC president on hold, the college said.

Looking at the two schools’ research programs, NSAC said that as a merged institution, “we think NSAC and Dal can truly become a centre of excellence in Canada for research and innovation” in agriculture, agri-food, and bioresources.

A merged institution, NSAC said, can also “help stimulate research activities in many partner agencies, not only in Truro but also in the (Annapolis) Valley,” citing the federal Atlantic Food and Horticulture Research Centre at Kentville, where NSAC has some research chairs, as an example.

Another goal of a merger would be to ensure benefits for the Annapolis Valley and Cumberland County regions, the province said in a separate release. The province described a merger as “an opportunity for Dalhousie and NSAC to partner with Acadia University to capitalize on the use of Kentville Agricultural Research Station, and there is potential for positive spin-offs at the Nappan Agricultural Research Station.”

“Complementarity”

NSAC’s history dates back to 1905, when it was set up “to train Atlantic Canadians in the best practices of farming.” Its facilities include a 500-acre research farm, greenhouses, an experimental orchard and a poultry research centre built in 2007.

The school’s 2010-11 enrolment sat at 960 students, with a complement of about 300 faculty and staff. Its 2011-12 budget is $30 million.

The merger discussions follow a provincially-commissioned report on the university system in Nova Scotia by economist and former Bank of Montreal executive Tim O’Neill, recommending that the province “consider integrating Nova Scotia Agricultural College into Dalhousie University as (NSAC) ceases as a government entity.”

Noting NSAC’s future funding levels are uncertain as the school moves away from direct provincial control, O’Neill’s report pointed to “considerable potential complementarity with respect to the research and teaching activities of (NSAC and Dal) that is not currently being exploited in an effective way.”

That said, he wrote, an NSAC merger into Dalhousie “is not without its potential problems. Nova Scotia Agricultural College has an international reputation, and a merger that eliminated its brand name might be harmful to that overall reputation.

“Second, there are no evident cost savings from the merger as the two campuses are not close to each other and it is highly likely that most of the administrative structure, both senior administration and staff, would have to be retained” at NSAC.

Also, he wrote, “to the extent that the faculty and staff salaries at (NSAC) are lower than those at Dalhousie, there would almost inevitably be an escalation in those faculty costs on a permanent basis.”

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