Campus leaders discuss why collaboration is a necessity, as well as best practices for action.
[Editor’s Note: Our editorial picks include stories the editors believe either highlighted an important issue in 2015 and/or signaled the beginning of an escalating trend or issue for 2016.]
Recently, the term “collaboration” has become higher education’s latest buzzword, with multiple conference speakers touting its importance, as well as everyone from CIOs to professors exclaiming that collaboration is imperative for supporting, and growing the capabilities of, today’s innovative institutions.
But collaboration is much more than the initial “warm glow” feeling of partnership, says Richard Ray, provost and professor of Kinesiology, Hope College. Meaningful collaboration is about outlining specific group roles, letting go of preconceived notions, specifying measurable deliverables, making personal investments into these collaborative projects and implementations, and much more.
In this thought-leadership piece, leaders from diverse departments and institutions discuss what collaboration really means, the potential benefits of successful collaborations, and how to get started at your department or institution.
[Listed in alphabetical order by last name]
IT tools can help
By David J. Hinson, Yeshivah of Flatbush
Of the myriad challenges faced in running an efficient technology services organization, few are more challenging that keeping everyone engaged and connected to what’s happening across the entire enterprise, and being able to effectively cover the entirety of the spectrum of customer service response levels (emergencies, on-demand service, equipment drop-off, ticketing systems, etc.).
At the Yeshivah of Flatbush, we use several collaboration tools to help us manage our real-time communications. Between our campuses, our IT staff is often out-of-reach of a cell signal and rarely in their offices, though they’re usually within range of a solid WiFi signal. Texting is also often more miss than hit.
In this environment, the tool that we rely upon most, for our daily group collaboration and messaging needs, is Slack. Our uses for Slack are twofold: First, we use Slack’s feature of channels to communicate where group members are working, and what they are working on, at any given time of day (our #zoho channel); announcing when we arrive or leave a work site (our #whereami channel); or simply sending out a call for lunch partners (our #lunch channel). Second, we use Slack to augment our online help desk ticketing system to rally additional help or expertise to a person or location. As Slack has highly customizable alerts, available on our iOS and Android mobile devices, it allows us to know in real time something of interest that is happening on our channels, or when someone needs to reach us immediately.
Most organizations have a blind spot in their service coverage: knowing where their people assets are at any given time, and being responsive to all of their constituencies in real time.
Slack helps us to fulfill both of these needs, without disrupting our normal work flow.
David J. Hinson is the director of IT at the Yeshivah of Flatbush, in Brooklyn, NY. He is also a former CIO of a small liberal arts college, a seasoned mobile applications developer, and a popular podcaster.
Establish specific, measurable deliverables
By Salwa Ismail, Georgetown University
As institutions of higher education balance and manage the rising complexities of the dynamic environment that they operate within, collaboration among the different units on campus becomes imperative. However, the strategies for collaboration are still nascent and under development. It becomes essential that the different units with asymmetrical reporting structures and different unit-based goals collaborate efficiently and effectively while balancing the restraints that the different units have based on their organizational structures.
Some of the strategies for successful collaboration and effective partnerships emanate from clear communication. It’s always best to ensure that the final goals and outcomes of the collaborative partnership are defined before the initiation of the collaboration. Once the final outcomes have been agreed upon, it is extremely beneficial to keep channels of communication open between the different team members involved in the partnership to ensure clear, professional, and respectful exchange of information between them.
Periodic check-ins between the different parties involved should be built into the partnership expectations, along with an upward reporting structure to ensure that the collaboration’s deliverables are on task, and are still compliant with the overarching goals. What also helps is to have the team members who are involved in the collaboration be clear on their roles and responsibilities towards the partnership deliverables. Having the team members on the same page helps ensure that conflicts are minimized (if any arise) and also helps ensure efficiency and output of deliverables within the expected timeline.
As partnerships evolve—and include not just intra-campus units, but units from other universities and the outside community—establishing specific, measurable deliverables, along with the functional requirements needed to produce these deliverables, can ensure that the projects and partnerships do not stagnate or create any misunderstandings.
Collaborations between different units can leverage the best resources and expertise to deliver successful results for the institution. And following some of these tips for cooperative partnerships—many from my own personal experiences—can help the institution increase administrative efficiencies and programmatic impact through these combined services and resources.
Salwa Ismail heads the Library Information Technology Department at Georgetown University Libraries.
(Next page: Personal investments; strategy and sacrifice)
Inter-institutional collaboration requires personal investment
By Sarah Jewett, University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC)
The STEM Transfer (t-STEM) Student Success Initiative is an inter-institutional collaboration between UMBC and four partner community colleges, including AACC, CCBC, HCC, and MC.* A central outcome for t-STEM is to provide direct support for prospective and current transfer students, and to facilitate a successful transition for students between institutions. The initiative reaches students through its pre-transfer and peer mentorship services, as well as its suite of online tools resources that can be utilized by faculty, staff, and students (stemtransfer.org).
This student-focused outcome requires extensive institutional collaboration, the structure and ethos of which must be explicitly created and intentionally nurtured over time. First, the structures must be grounded in ways that are broad and deep. t-STEM depends on the visible commitment of institutional leaders, as well as the work of intra- and inter-institutional working groups of faculty and staff who thoughtfully guide the direction of the programming, and create the content for the online tools and resources. These team members then consult closely on the graphic design and technical delivery of the online components.
Second, the ethos of the initiative must be rooted in relationships that are honest and trustworthy. There are no shortcuts here. These kinds of relationships require personal investment, professional commitment, shared responsibility, and critical reflection. They also rely on time for collaboration—both face-to-face time to discuss and plan, as well as online time to review and refine material. Threaded throughout these elements is a willingness to confront some of the stereotypes of both two-year and four-year institutions and redirect unproductive tendencies to assume or ascribe blame. Taken together, these processes yield products where student success can take center stage, and everyone’s contributions to that goal are visible.
Ultimately, the work of t-STEM is to take the lessons learned from our local partnership, and to translate them into a national model for collaboration between two-year and four-year institutions that integrates services, resources, and technologies.
Note: The STEM Transfer Student Success Initiative is an innovative inter-institutional collaboration funded by a grant to UMBC from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
*Anne Arundel Community College, Community College of Baltimore County, Howard Community College, Montgomery College, and University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Sarah Jewett is executive director of the t-STEM initiative at UMBC.
Strategy doesn’t have to mean sacrifice
By Bill Muse, Schreiner University
Collaboration between academic officers, business officers and faculty is the cornerstone to effective leadership at colleges and universities. While this might sound trite, when these three groups of individuals come together to formulate in-depth strategies and seek ways to align priorities and budgets while being nimble enough to incorporate innovations, the result is powerful and effective. This collaboration can lead to higher enrollment levels, academic freedom, and financial viability while ensuring the successful education of students.
A cohesive relationship between the Chief Business Officer (CBO) and Chief Academic Officer (CAO), or Provost, is a good place to start and is essential to developing creative ideas for college programs, while also being able to overcome any inherent prejudices and budgeting issues. The CBO and the Provost must be able to talk through issues to find the commonality of their goals in order to take the first step towards implementing programs and technology to transform the college experience.
While higher aspirations are always welcome, some believe that enhancing educational value while increasing affordability is an oxymoron, with the only result being that one goal is achieved at the expense of another. I’m fortunate to have a solid relationship with Schreiner’s Provost Charlie McCormick and together we are always looking for the next big thing. We recently were able to introduce a new undergraduate program that enables students to graduate in three years instead of four and introduce a textbook-in-tuition model from Rafter. The new technology solution provides students with significant savings on course materials and ensures that they will have all of their materials by the first day of class. This is all accomplished without sacrificing academic freedom.
The cost-savings from textbooks and transforming the textbook business model is used to fund experiential enhancements like studying abroad and increasing internship and service-learning opportunities that make a degree from Schreiner even more valuable.
While the process of agreeing on an initiative, holding planning sessions, educating the faculty, hosting town hall meetings with students, presenting solutions to the president and winning the board’s approval is an ambitious one, the rewards are monumental. Collaboration across all levels of higher education results in a true and memorable impact on students’ educational experience.
Bill Muse has served as VP of Administration and Finance at Schreiner University since 2011. Bill previously served as Associate Vice President for University Planning, Budgeting and Analysis at The University of Montana.
(Next page: Past the “warm glow;” eliminating the blame game)
Moving past the “warm glow” takes effort
By Richard Ray, Hope College
Collaboration is an idea that most in higher education find attractive. Yet, most efforts at collaboration fail to take root if they do not move beyond the initial warm glow of inter- or intra-institutional friendliness. The following points can prove helpful in establishing and sustaining fruitful collaborations that serve the needs of all partners and also stand the test of time:
1. Focus as much on the relationship as on the project(s). Collaborators must—above all else—deal with each other in a spirit of honesty. Partnerships usually involve some degree of sacrifice for the accomplishment of mutual goals. Being honest about the nature of those sacrifices is important.
2. Define the project’s goals as precisely as possible. Each partner should understand—and be accountable for—the objectives to be pursued. The best objectives are usually those that are measurable according to mutually acceptable timeframes.
3. Specify who will be responsible for each aspect of the project. This is standard stuff for projects that are contained within a single unit or institution, but sometimes overlooked in collaborative efforts. Bear in mind that, depending on the nature of the project, different institutional partners may be responsible for a different number of objectives.
4. Evaluate the relationship regularly. How well are the original goals for collaborating being met? Is the circle of those within the participating institutions being widened, or is the collaboration narrowly “owned” by one or two people? Does the collaboration make financial sense for both partners? What problems have been identified, and how can they be minimized? Have new opportunities been identified?
Every collaboration takes on the “personality” of its participants. Close attention to the human aspects of the collaboration provides the flexibility that is required to make something that is often hard to sustain both successful and productive.
Richard Ray, provost and professor of Kinesiology, Hope College, Holland Michigan, has served as Provost at Hope College since 2010, where he has been a professor of kinesiology since 1982.
Working together means listening to all voices and eliminating the blame game
By Crystal Sands, Excelsior College
One of the biggest struggles for colleges across the country is in preparing students with the kinds of written and oral communication skills they need as professionals. The National Commission on Writing reported that American companies are spending billions of dollars annually to provide additional training in writing for their employees.
And, as colleges and universities work to provide more and better writing instructions for their students, collaborating on Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) projects and initiatives becomes a necessity.
The following tips are in no way comprehensive, but summarize some of my biggest lessons from working on WAC initiatives for nearly twenty years, and, hopefully, give those who are working on similar projects some things to consider.
1. We can’t solve writing problems with one writing course—or even two—at the beginning of a student’s academic career. Therefore, it is necessary to teach writing in all classes, working together to build upon the foundations begun for students in introductory writing courses.
2. The field of writing instruction provides important research about assignment design, process, and the evaluation of writing. Making sure those who are versed in this research have their voices heard at the institutional level is imperative.
3. Writing faculty need to teach and listen when it comes to working with faculty in other disciplines, paying close attention to the writing needs of specific disciplines.
4. WAC committees should take advantage of free resources that are available. Free writing resources like the Excelsior College OWL provide support that can be used in any course that requires writing. Sharing common resources is a great way to build bridges for faculty—and students.
5. Finally, we have to stop playing the “blame game” when it comes to writing issues. At every level, we need to work to meet our students where they are and provide them with the writing support they need. There are many reasons why students struggle with writing, and we are not helping anyone when writing faculty blame public schools, when faculty in the disciplines blame writing faculty, and so on.
It takes a group effort—and a monumental effort at that—to improve students’ writing skills in a way that lasts their lifetimes.
Crystal Sands, PhD, is the executive director of the Excelsior College Online Writing Lab and has been teaching college-level writing and working on writing across the curriculum initiatives for nearly twenty years.
(Next page: Consider consortia)
Consider consortia to expand resources
By Karen Talentino, Saint Michael’s College
As the challenges to our futures expand and increase in potential impact, it has become clear to many of us that most individual institutions do not have the capacity to develop successful strategic responses completely on our own. For institutions of higher education today, collaborations are essential.
In order to provide a transformative student experience we work across institutional divisions to create an engaging and integrated curriculum and co-curriculum. We accept that students are learning 24/7 and we work together to articulate learning outcomes and create learning opportunities that acknowledge that fact. We are no longer independent silos of academics, student activities, residence life, financial aid, athletics, and career and health services. A number of schools have combined offices, or created student “hubs” that provide comprehensive, one-stop support for students. Without serious and intentional collaboration, these efforts could not be successful.
With constrained budgets and increased competition for students, most institutions are looking for creative ways to expand resources for student learning by looking beyond campus boundaries and budgets. For example, most, if not all institutions are members of at least several consortia, which may be aimed at administrative cost-sharing, cross registration opportunities (both local and online), joint academic or student life programs, or any number of other objectives. In addition, many undergraduate colleges have articulation agreements with various universities to facilitate post-graduate education for their students. Inter-institutional collaborations are some of the most exciting initiatives in higher education today and will continue to an important aspect of cost-savings and expanded opportunity in the future.
Regardless of the type, here are a few suggestions about how to make the most of any collaborative experience:
- Set aside enough time to work on the collaboration – it will require time, trust and compromise
- Articulate a clear assessment plan and exit strategy
- Learn from successful models – there are lots of them
- Consider collaborations with institutions of all types, not just those that are similar to you
- Be aware of infrastructures and processes that are set up for silos, not collaborations
- Publicize your successes
Although a collaboration can require more effort than going it alone, at its best a collaboration can lead to shared knowledge, enhanced creativity, additional resources and better thinking. A collaboration encourages introspection and clarity of articulation about goals and expectations, creating a greater likelihood of a successful outcome.
Karen Talentino is a professor of Biology and vice president for Academic Affairs at Saint Michael’s College (VT). She has been an academic administrator and biology faculty member for nearly 40 years at several private liberal arts colleges in New England.