File: A view of the second story atrium of the 19th century Corcoran Gallery of art building. (Bill O'Leary/Washington Post)

In some ways, it is easy for a big university to swallow a small college.

George Washington University, with 25,000-plus students and an endowment exceeding $1.3 billion, showed this week that it has the means to decide on short notice to absorb the neighboring Corcoran College of Art and Design, with roughly 550 students and major financial troubles.

But in academic mergers there is always a delicate dance. Tradition matters. So do interdisciplinary scholarship, institutional branding, faculty priorities, student needs and, not least, real estate opportunities and imperatives.

The choreography is intensifying after the announcement Wednesday that GWU, founded in 1821, has agreed to take over the 124-year-old college, while the National Gallery of Art will absorb much of the affiliated Corcoran Gallery of Art’s extensive collection.

GWU President Steven Knapp said Thursday that he had “extensive discussions” with the Corcoran on ideas for joint initiatives since he moved into his post in 2007. A scholar of English Romanticism, Knapp said he admires the grand exhibit halls in the Corcoran’s Beaux-Arts building on 17th Street NW, which is a few blocks from his own residence at F and 20th streets.

In the past, Knapp said, serious talk of a merger would founder on the condition that the college might have to move out of the gallery building. GWU, despite all of its resources, couldn’t make that work, Knapp said. So about a year ago, talks between the university and the college stalled. The University of Maryland entered the picture in April, with a proposal for a partnership. Knapp said GWU essentially told the Corcoran: “Great. Hope it works out.”

It didn’t.

In mid-January, the idea of a three-way partnership emerged in which the college would not have to move. “It met everybody’s objectives in one fell swoop,” Knapp said. He consulted with his board Feb. 7 and secured what he called “enthusiastic” backing.

All of this was a coup for Knapp and a shock to U-Md. President Wallace D. Loh.

Loh said in an e-mail Thursday to his faculty and staff that he was moving full speed on a partnership plan, including a proposed cash infusion to the Corcoran to erase its operating deficits, until College Park officials got a deal-canceling call from the Corcoran hours before the Wednesday announcement. Loh said he learned that a partnership between a research university and an art school is “a devilishly complex transaction, because it blends organizations of different scales and cultures.”

Now Knapp must hammer out a detailed agreement for his board’s approval by April 7.

Assuming that occurs, Knapp said, the likeliest scenario is that the college would hold its own commencement in the spring for students who are ready to graduate. Then there would be a transition.

GWU would assume control of the Corcoran’s assets and operations. It would become the degree-granting authority for Corcoran students. The Corcoran legacy would endure in multiple ways, he said, including in the name of the college. (Another tie-in: Corcoran founder William Wilson Corcoran was a major donor to the university in the 19th century and served on its board of trustees.)

Whether the college becomes a separate academic unit — the 11th among GWU’s colleges and schools — or is placed under the umbrella of the university’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences is to be determined. “This is going to take considerable study and engagement of our faculty,” Knapp said.

Knapp called the deal an opportunity to create “a new model of arts education.” A former provost at Johns Hopkins University, Knapp said he is bearing in mind the example of the Hopkins merger with the Peabody Institute and its degree-granting music conservatory in 1977. The Peabody, in Baltimore, “still has very much a free-standing identity,” Knapp said.

Along with academic planning are key questions about real estate and finance. The Beaux-Arts building needs major renovation. GWU also will assume ownership of a Corcoran campus on 35th Street NW in Georgetown. Knapp said it’s “certainly conceivable” that the Georgetown property will be sold to help cover renovation expenses.