Cloepfil's most recent project in Portland was the re-design of the 511 Post Office into the Pacific Northwest College of Art's Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Center for Art and Design.

A 2016 file photo shows the Pacific Northwest College of Art's Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Center for Art and Design in Portland, Ore.

MARIO GALLUCCI

Oregon’s oldest university is taking over the region’s oldest arts college in a move designed to strengthen both schools, at a time of intense difficulty and financial strain for higher education institutions. Willamette University endured declining enrollment for several years, while the Pacific Northwest College of Art has struggled to remain afloat, enduring leadership changes and layoffs over the last year or so.

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Much of that was before COVID-19 forced residential colleges into difficult decisions about whether to open campuses, how to run classes and how to deal with uncertainties around admission, enrollment and families' capacity to pay for college.

Neither college is a stranger to exploring alliances.

Willamette University has connections to a theology school in California and the Tokyo International University of America (though the latter program has been curtailed due to the COVID-19 pandemic).

PNCA had attempted a previous merger with the Oregon College of Art and Craft, but it fell through, and OCAC later closed.

In its announcement, Willamette pointed to financial benefits of the agreement, including “shared administrative support, as well as to create cost-controlling efficiencies.” But Willamette is also touting opportunities for academic enrichment to serve students.

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Willamette University leaders characterized the move as an attempt to “deepen the connection of art and design with the liberal arts and sciences, establishing a catalyst for new thought and expression in critical subjects like climate change, racial and social justice, and health.”

With the acquisition, PNCA becomes Willamette’s fourth college, in addition to the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Law and the Atkinson Graduate School of Management. It’s the second time Willamette has partnered with a small college with a specific academic focus, after Willamette’s alliance with the Claremont School of Theology in Claremont, California, last year.

There are two obvious differences between Willamette’s partnership with the theology school and its just-announced merger with PNCA. For one, the theology school is considered an “affiliated” program, not an additional college within Willamette. Also, the agreement with the Claremont School of Theology included plans to move programs north to Salem. Willamette’s plan for PNCA is that it will remain in Portland — giving the Salem-based university a stronger connection to Oregon’s largest city.

“Willamette students will benefit from the broader fine and visual arts offerings provided by PNCA, as well as the culture and creativity of its community in Portland,” said Willamette President Steve Thorsett in a message to the campus community.

Conversely, Thorsett said, “PNCA students will have access to the breadth of curricular offerings at Willamette, including humanities, science and business courses, and benefit from its proximity to policymaking and government in Salem.”

PNCA posted an identical press release to its website Thursday announcing the merger. The art college’s homepage lauds the agreement as an effort to “create the next generation of citizen artists.”

“For more than 100 years, PNCA has contributed to the cultural vibrancy of the region. We are confident as PNCA joins Willamette that the college’s legacy and longstanding commitment to our students will be further enhanced,” said PNCA board chair Scott D. Musch.

College leaders at both colleges say the agreement had been a topic of private discussion for months, and included analyses of finances at both institutions.

The agreement is subject to approval by the universities' accreditors, which is expected next year.

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