Zealous Commitment to Collaboration

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.

Collaboration Origin

Always good to know the origin of a word. The first usage of the word “collaborate” appears to be in 1871. Now, 144 years later, it is beginning to take on greater usage and significance as we search for a process and/or strategy for finding solutions to our contemporary challenges and opportunities. Collaboration is the most creative, viable answer, as well as the most abundant renewable resource we have on our planet that will lead us to an improved future.


Contemporary Challenges to the System (Part I)

Higher education is increasingly faced with challenges that are not easily surmounted. These are contemporary challenges with no simple answers or quick solutions. While the list below could be ten times longer based on who you talk to, several contemporary challenges include, in no particular order:

a) Increase in Title IX incidents
b) Rise in student debt
c) Decline in federal and state support for instruction
d) Rise in tuition, room/board, and fees
e) Competition for market share of decreasing high school graduates
f) Change in student profile from traditional to non-traditional students
g) Pressure to increase retention and completion
h) Shortage of classroom space and human capital to handle higher enrollments
i) Decrease in tenure track positions and continued rise in adjunct model of teaching
j) Increase in number of students needing developmental education
k) Challenges associated with serving a growing international population
l) Pressure to prepare graduates to work in the era of globalization
m) Increase in plagiarism among students and faculty
n) Pressure to align programs, certificates, degrees with industry needs
o) Pressure to increase college educated workforce to 60 percent
p) Role of MOOCs and its resistance to commodification
q) Growth of for-profit higher education sector
r) Increase in accountability by Higher Learning Commission and DOE
s) Question about the return on investment of a college degree
t) Increase in scrutiny by the media on how public dollars are spent
u) Demand on resources created by ongoing technology upgrades
v) Challenge to provide increased security on campuses
w) Impact of Affordable Health Care Act on budgets
x) Looming retirements of administrative and academic leadership
y) Aging facilities and infrastructure on campuses
z) Fill in the blank ___________________________

Again, this list is far from complete. Most of the challenges identified are from the perspective of what might keep higher education leaders awake at night. We could list an entirely different data set by spending time in the trenches, where we would discover additional challenges with campus infrastructure, student behavior, and personnel that would make our heads spin. Or we could conduct an inquiry with faculty and the list would grow even more. Garnering the student perspective would reveal unique challenges that we never knew existed, and let us not forget to include the challenges seen by the external community partners. The list of contemporary challenges would grow exponentially. Furthermore, these challenges are escalating, and creating pressure on a higher education system that was not initially designed with them in mind. These challenges need to be resolved or they will remain an ongoing distraction that pulls and pushes the educational economic, and civic mission of higher education off course, or simply prevents it from maturing. Where do we go from here? Part II will focus on solutions.

Complex Challenge/Collaboration=Solution

At the recent SOCHE Fellows forum, a year-long program designed for emerging academic leaders, it was no surprise that collaboration emerged as a main theme, as well as the subtext, in several discussions. It emerged as a desired outcomes needed right now to address the myriad of contemporary challenges facing higher education; challenges to a higher ed system that was not created with these challenges in mind, nor the intrinsic wisdom and collaborative culture to address them. Fortunately, such complex challenges that require systemic change, ultimately, can be solved through future-oriented collaborative thinking. Simply put, the equation looks like: complex challenge/collaboration=solution (x/y=z).

pictured: SOCHE Fellows working together
to come untangled as part of an exercise
on Difficult and Crucial Conversations.

CI: Beyond Higher Ed’s Origin of Silos

Whenever I talk about SOCHE, people are repeatedly fascinated that an organization exists to purposely facilitate, find, and forge collaboration. Whether I’m at TED Global, Harvard Kennedy School, Valencia College, riding the Metro, or striking up a conversation in the local supermarket, people recognize that collaboration is the critical ingredient missing in many different settings. At a recent event, it was noted that academic silos serve as the antithesis to collaborative thinking. For good reason, the silo structure and culture were created to engender deep, focused research and scholarship. However, a closed system as such can evolve only so far before it becomes desperate for change or, worse off, headed down a path of exhaustion. As much as higher education has improved efforts in campus-community partnerships, where can you find on campus the nucleus for intra-collaboration, the resourced collaborative infrastructure (CI) that facilitates, finds, and forges collaboration internally?  It seems too obvious that each campus needs a SOCHElike office, embedded within the campus operation to ensure academia is truly a learning system that evolves itself beyond its origin of silos.


TEDx is an independently organized TED event. Over 3,000 have occurred around the globe. While each TEDx is uniquely programmed by a local community, there is one thing that successful TEDx events have in common. Their creativity comes from the ability to effectively leveraging volunteer collaboration. While the volunteers are attracted to TEDx because of the power of the TED brand, an ethos of collaboration emerges in the TEDx process and, essentially, collaboration becomes the driving spirit that permits innovation as we uncover “ideas worth spreading.”

TEDxDayton 2013 pic.

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