College and IT leaders say it’s not about the next tech, but about how teamwork and collaboration can revolutionize postsecondary education

collaboration-institution-hrabowskiPoetry, personal stories, laughs and boisterous arm and hand gestures are not what I was expecting at 8 in the morning, and, I’m nervous to admit, from a university president. Neither was the conversation aimed at inspiring collaboration among all departments and lessening boundaries and hierarchy.

“Lift up your eyes upon
This day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.”

That was Maya Angelou, for those who were wondering,” opened Dr. Freeman Hrabowski at the 2014 Campus Technology conference in Boston, “and I like to do this: tell stories and inspire. It’s part of being a good leader.”

And if anyone would know good leadership, it is, in fact, this man: not only is he the president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County—one of the most successful colleges in the U.S. today thanks to stellar focuses on STEM and graduation rates, but also one of TIME Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World,” and one of seven of the Washington Post’s “Top American Leaders,” among many notable awards and presidential recognitions.

And did Hrabowski decide to discuss the influence of MOOCs? Maybe Big Data? Or maybe what he really wanted to impart was some advice on implementing analytics? Sure, brief mentions were noted. But what’s most important to one of U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Leaders” is a concept often missing in higher education: teamwork and collaboration—a theme prevalent amongst all other sessions at this prestigious higher ed conference.

(Next page: The importance of collaboration; learning from startups)

According to Hrabowski, there are many components to creating a thriving, successful institution; including rethinking admissions to include students who may not fit the traditional mold, inviting companies to integrate on campus with students, understanding the immense need to tell a story with data (rather than just rattling off sterile numbers), and providing support for minority students.

But what was truly the most innovative concept discussed was inter-departmental, and institution-to-institution collaboration.

“I had an interesting talk with Jill Albin-Hill, Vice President for IT at Dominican University, and something she said struck me: I want to be so involved with other departments, to know their needs, goals and staff so well, that if their VP left, I could fill in—not be an expert, but at least step in and be able to provide effective solutions. And that’s what needs to happen in colleges today: working as a close team where IT is not a separate section, but the foundation for all departments.”

Hrabowski also emphasized the importance of having institutions collaborate, whether they’re two-year or four-year campuses.

“Right now, you have individual faculty comparing course syllabi or structure and that’s fine, but it’s usually between like-minded institutions and there’s no partnership. The two-year technical college should be talking with the traditional four-year, and faculty should be getting together to discuss new ideas, innovations and practices.

Collaboration was a central theme for another popular session of the conference, “Startup thinking brings innovation for campus IT,” where speakers Emory Craig, director of eLearning and Instructional Technologies at the College of New Rochelle, and Maya Georgieva, associate director of the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning at NYU Stern School of Business, discussed the keys to success as defined by startup leaders.

“There are many ways higher ed IT is similar to a startup business and many ways we’re not—mostly in that we’re so regulated and don’t actually create a product,” said Craig, “but in many ways we can be, and one of those ways is success through teamwork and collaboration.”

During a session presentation, Craig and Georgieva showed a video of an interview with the late Steve Jobs discussing what makes a good startup or any successful business—a non-hierarchical approach to leadership:


“It’s about creating a team culture, about knowing that any good startup credits success to surrounding yourself with inspiring people, and having a smart, small team that you trust and listen to,” said Georgieva.

Of course, when asked exactly how to start getting faculty and admin collaborating with each other by a keynote attendee, Hrabowski somewhat acknowledged that this is going to take a major culture change, and right now there are simply “dinners and meetings to talk.”

But perhaps it’s okay not to have all the answers right now, and instead discuss common visions and start dialogues about change—the very purpose of national conferences. After all, if collaboration can happen amongst keynote attendees, maybe this behavior can be taken back to the campus.

“I leave you with this,” closed Hrabowski, “Your thoughts turn to words. Your words turn to actions. Your actions turn into habits. Your habits become your character. And your character is your destiny.”

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