SAU, Mount Mercy to broaden collaboration

Amy Novak, president of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, shakes the hand of Todd Olson, president of Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids. The two Catholic universities are broadening their collaboration.

By Barb Arland-Fye
and Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

St. Ambrose University in Davenport and Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids are broadening their collaboration to harness the strengths of both institutions and to ensure strong, vibrant Catholic higher education in eastern Iowa.

Students at both universities may take a range of courses from either institution, whether in-person, hybrid or online format, beginning in fall 2024. Discussions in the coming months between the universities will explore additional opportunities for collaboration to boost enrollment and to maximize efficiency in operations on both campuses.

The two Catholic universities are not merging; they are capitalizing on the strengths of each institution to make Catholic higher education more affordable and accessible to a wide range of students, their presidents said during a May 6 virtual news conference.


“For a long time in higher education and in many industries we thought about having to compete to gain advantage. This (collaboration) flips that model on its head,” said Amy Novak, president of St. Ambrose University. For the two universities, the question focuses on “How do we collaborate to make a bigger impact?”

Novak envisions this model as a “novel pathway forward that you might see other small private institutions exploring as we really want to ensure we can deliver on our mission for Catholic higher education for all students in this region and more.”

“I believe our communities will benefit because of both the values-based education we offer and we as Catholic institutions are all about service to others, about generosity,” said Todd Olson, president of Mount Mercy University. “We believe the education formation we offer helps (students) to be active and engaged citizens in their communities.”

The “two very complementary assets” of St. Ambrose and Mount Mercy will enhance education opportunities for students and the employers who will depend on them. These students will be “well prepared to be engaged citizens and well prepared to be effective employees and professionals,” Olson said.

During a time when college enrollment has been declining, due to factors that include a shrinking population of traditional students, the universities seek to increase opportunities for lifelong learners. These may include adults who began a degree program but never finished, people in the workforce seeking to “upskill,” and individuals who may feel intimidated by a larger university setting, for example.

“In the current higher education environment, this type of work represents a bold and proactive approach to capitalize on the current academic and financial strength of both Mount Mercy and St. Ambrose,” Novak said. “Currently, both universities boast a number of strong financial indicators. This joint work promises to strengthen our collective ability to innovate and grow as vibrant, values-based leaders in our marketplace.”

Novak and Olson signed the collaboration agreement May 6 after receiving approval from each not-for-profit university’s board of trustees. The two universities are finalizing a second agreement to facilitate the seamless transition of qualified students from undergraduate into graduate degree programs. This includes pathways into 18 separate graduate programs and a variety of certificate and degree completion programs for adult learners.

The universities have been discussing opportunities to collaborate for more than a year. Their efforts create the following benefits for traditional students and adult learners:

  • Potential to reduce time to degree completion.
  • Expanded opportunities to move from undergraduate into graduate programs in healthcare, engineering, marriage and family therapy, social work, public health, education, and business.
  • Strengthened core curriculum focused on holistic formation and the development of ethical decision-making frameworks grounded in the Catholic tradition of both universities.
  • New opportunities for adult learners to complete degrees, obtain certificates and upskill themselves to be more competitive in the labor market.
  • New benefits and possibilities for the Quad Cities and Cedar Rapids communities.

Both presidents say the universities are exploring opportunities to leverage shared administrative functions and economies of scale to achieve cost savings and maximize operations’ efficiency. Novak and Olson anticipate expanded conversations toward a potential strategic combination in the coming months, ensuring that all actions are conducted with appropriate due diligence and subject to all applicable regulatory and accrediting agency requirements. Both said they look forward to including faculty, staff, students and community members in the discussions.

Father Dennis Holtschneider and Donna M. Carroll, co-presidents for the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, said they have been encouraging colleges to explore this type of activity. “We know these are challenging times for our colleges and universities,” Carroll said.

About the universities

St. Ambrose University, founded in 1882 by the Diocese of Davenport, is committed to academic excellence, the liberal arts, social justice and service rooted in Catholic intellectual tradition. SAU is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission and offers 65 undergraduate majors, 10 master’s degrees and 3 doctoral programs. St. Ambrose education remains centered on intentional, holistic and experiential learning, with a vision to be a vibrant, sustainable and learner-focused model for Catholic higher education. Learn more about St. Ambrose University at

 Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids, Iowa is the regional Catholic, Mercy University that promises students of diverse backgrounds, ages and faiths a challenging, practical education that inspires them to discover knowledge, build community and live their values. Mount Mercy provides a forward-thinking, future-focused education, offering baccalaureate and graduate education to 1,500+ enrolled students and uniquely blending a quality liberal arts education with career-focused professional preparation. For more information, visit 

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