Last year, I conducted a study to better understand select, exemplary higher education associations. In the interviews, I asked a series of questions that elicited discussions about organizational effectiveness, professional expectations, and what constitutes an exemplary association. I listened carefully for repetition and commonality, as well as distinction, among the participants.
In every case, collaboration emerged as the number one key factor. Each participant elaborated on what collaboration meant to them, essentially recognizing how their associations worked to create one, unified voice. Each participant acknowledged the importance of developing a working relationship among members, and both finding and implementing a common agenda. They continually reinforced that their greatest asset was strength in unity.
Further, participants stressed a zealous commitment to collaboration that, consequently, resulted in creating a system-like affiliation of colleges with centralized representation in states that were largely decentralized. In fact, the weak system in these states made the associations stronger. Essentially, the associations served as the mechanism for behaving like a system and, therefore, the colleges rallied around key issues, putting political will and force around their common agenda. By recognizing more can be accomplished working together than alone, the participants upheld the tenet: whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
However, participants noted effective collaboration didn’t come easy. Several participants commented parochialism of presidents always threatened the effectiveness of the association, quoting the famous line from Lincoln, “a house divided cannot stand.” The participants handled the tension in various ways. Sometimes they pressed board leadership to handle internal disputes. A couple of participants intentionally stayed away from divisive areas that could exasperate existing tensions between colleges.
Overall, participants put the required effort into sustaining the wisdom of working together, knowing it often created wonderful results. One participant viewed the effort as collaborative autonomy, noting that autonomy alone is not enough and the colleges needed to coordinate and collaborate around autonomy to make great things happen, regardless of the intensity of the issues or personalities.