Collaboration Among Colleges: Impossible Mission?

Independent colleges often choose to go it alone even when it makes sense to work together, Alice Brown writes.

August 19, 2008

Bill Bowen, who was a longtime president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, describes getting colleges to collaborate as "a very difficult, much unappreciated" task. From my experience in trying for 25 years to get 37 college presidents to collaborate, I'd go further. I have concluded that real collaboration across institutions is virtually impossible.

Collaboration as a concept is great, but as a reality it rarely exists. Centralization (providing benefits that each college can access) and even cooperation (helping when it doesn't hurt) are far easier practices to implement than true collaboration (working for the benefit of the whole even when some of the individual parts have to sacrifice).

Working first as director of a program at a major research university funded (by Mellon) to provide fellowships for faculty at small colleges in the mountains of central Appalachia, and then as president of the consortium that grew from that program, I feel qualified to make a few observations about why collaboration is so difficult:

Presidents of independent colleges are independent; as the primary representative of the institution they have a strong need for autonomy and to claim distinctiveness for their institutions -- even when the institution is very similar to others within the same classification of higher education institutions. While they do not want to disagree with their peers in public and will often appear to be in agreement, promises made in a public setting often do not get fulfilled in a private setting. Similarly, commitments made privately are often changed when a public vote with their peers is taken. As one college president said in a presentation at a meeting of the Association for Consortium Leadership, "We will promise anything to appear agreeable in a meeting of the consortium members."

Rosalynn Carter once said that a leader is someone who takes people where they want to go; a great leader is someone who takes people where they need to go.

Getting 37 presidents to agree on where they wanted to go was impossible for me; finding out where they needed to go -- by asking presidents, foundation officers, program directors in federal agencies and others from outside the Association -- was easier. Some consortium directors talk about the importance of building consensus, but I found the adage that "consensus is what everyone is willing to agree on in public but no one believes in private" was far too true.

I quickly learned that the way to get the presidents of our 37 colleges to make a commitment to a project was to present the project as the idea of another of the presidents or of a foundation representative and ask for volunteers for the pilot stages. I was fortunate to have 37 presidents with which to work because even though there were usually those who had no intention of fulfilling a commitment to the project, there were always enough who did fulfill their commitments to make the project successful. Directors of consortia with only a few members have a harder job. They have to know they have the sincere commitment of all their presidents to assure success; they do have to worry about building consensus.

Presidents do not accept ownership of what they do not control; academic deans, on the other hand, seem to be quite comfortable claiming ownership in situations where they feel they at least have some authority to make decisions. As a program at the University of Kentucky, the Appalachian College Program was guided by the academic deans of the participating colleges; they accepted those rare occasions when some idea they had proposed was vetoed by the university's officials (usually because there were other projects within the university that would be competing for the funding).

Once the presidents met to discuss expanding the program to include more than faculty development (joint purchasing, training for staff, etc.), it was clear immediately that they would not accept with grace a veto of their ideas by authorities at the university. As a result, the Appalachian College Program became the Appalachian College Association, an independent 501(c) 3 organization directed by a board made up of the presidents of member colleges.

Given the need of the presidents for autonomy, there is generally little reason to expect them to be concerned about the impact the program might have on education within the region generally; each president in my consortium was primarily concerned about the benefits his or her institution would derive individually. The question for each of the presidents was almost inevitability, "How will this project impact my institution?" While the mission of the Appalachian College Association was broadly defined as "strengthening private higher education in the region," the primary goal on which the presidents could agree was that the Association should raise money that all the colleges could share -- but only if raising that money did not jeopardize the fund raising of any individual member college.

The only aspect of their operations that the presidents seemed completely comfortable allowing the Association to address was faculty development and, later, centralized library services. At a roundtable session with Bob Zemsky (founding director of the University of Pennsylvania's Institute for Research on Higher Education) to set priorities for the next president of the Association, they quickly concluded that the focus of the Association should remain on faculty, that they did not need another organization that provided a social setting where the presidents could meet, or joint purchasing contracts that would probably overlap with contracts already in place through their state associations. What they most appreciated about the work of the Association was the fellowships and travel grants made available to faculty for individual research and study—a central service not requiring much collaboration.

At that same roundtable session, the question was asked, "If there were a disaster in your region that destroyed one of the member campuses, would the other campuses come together to help rebuild that campus?" After a long pause, a response came: "If the association called us together, we would. " The wise observation made by Zemsky was that the loyalty among the presidents was to the association and not to each other -- more evidence that centralization, not collaboration was the primary benefit they saw for the association.

When college presidents (across multiple institutions including some from my association) at a Council of Independent Colleges meeting were asked, "What is your favorite consortium among those to which you belong?," the answer was always one in which that president's college was the lead institution. A president will usually name a small local collaborative with the county high school over a regional or national one where their voice is much weaker.

Consortia directors or presidents work hard to "fulfill the vision of their members," but many do not seem to know what that vision is -- beyond working together for the benefit of the whole. And, unfortunately, it seems to be the financially weak institutions that are most interested in being active in a consortium because they have the greatest need for help, though they are least able to provide funding for the organization's staff and operations. As a result, many consortia can provide only what the weakest members among them can sustain.

Despite my frustration that as a collaborative our colleges never soared beyond 10,000 feet when 30,000 was my goal, our consortium of private Appalachian colleges (most with small endowments and small enrollments) was touted as one of the most successful in the nation. Calls came monthly from colleges outside our region wanting to become members; my advice was usually, "Start your own."

Keeping more than 30 colleges across five states working together on any level was more than a full-time job for our core staff of about five. Several of those calls actually resulted in meetings of groups of colleges anxious to replicate our model -- a regional consortium supported by nominal membership dues and lots of funding from foundations and federal agencies that managed to build an endowment for programs of roughly $25 million and reserve funds totaling over $500,000. None of those who called ever called back for advice, but if any had, here is what I would have told them:

1. Have a specific mission before you meet to organize. Forming a consortium for collaboration without knowing what you will collaborate to do is like having a meeting without knowing what the purpose of the meeting is: not much is likely to be accomplished. Recognize that providing central services or getting cooperation across the campuses is as worthy a goal as true collaboration.

2. Hold the initial organizational meeting with those who will be the primary beneficiaries to be sure they are receptive to the new opportunities provided. With our Association, the primary beneficiaries of the program that started the Association were faculty of the participating colleges. Faculty from the colleges met multiple times in groups on their own campuses and across the various campuses for five years before the academic deans of the colleges actually held their first meeting. The deans and faculty continued to meet for another five years before the presidents got involved, formed the Appalachian College Association and moved the organization away from the university.

3. Find a funding source -- the member colleges or an outside foundation, individual, or federal agency -- to support the first effort adequately. If the first venture fails, the consortium is likely to fail as well. Be sure that the project has appeal that will generate sustained funding -- either by the members or other agencies. Take advantage of the natural appeal consortia have for funders: program officers have to meet with only one consortium director, not with multiple college presidents.

4. Find a strong leader, someone who is able to listen to faculty and students or whoever the beneficiaries are and not be intimidated by those serving on the board of the consortium who may think they best know what the beneficiaries need. Choose someone who is bold enough to be able to solicit honest responses to ideas from the board members but is flexible enough to shape the ideas of those board members into fundable projects that will serve the major constituencies as they want to be served. Find someone who is able to present a good case to funders but wise enough to know that it is the funder who ultimately decides if the project is worthy of funding. Recognize that it makes little sense to argue a case that is not a good match for the funding agency. Someone said as I was leaving the Appalachian College Association that the new president should not allow himself to be controlled by the presidents but he will need to allow the presidents to believe they control him if they feel the need to control him. Ideally the college presidents will have enough confidence in the president of their consortium to trust that he or she will take the colleges both where they want to go and where they need to go. A consortium director or president has to listen to everyone and then do what he or she deems is in the best interest of most. Trying to make everyone happy with every decision is a sure way to slow the productivity of the organization, if not kill it.

5. Develop an organizational voice that is independentof the member institutions and the beneficiaries. For our Association, an Advisory Council was established as a result of the first strategic plan. That council was made up of representatives retired from the foundations and federal agencies that had supported our multiple projects and of other individuals in higher education with a special interest in the region and/or the member colleges, but no ties to any one particular college.

Such a council can help the consortium director consider what the colleges want to do in relation to broad views of higher education. Appeals to funders can be more convincing if there is evidence of a potential impact on multiple institutions outside the one group of colleges served by the consortium. Advisory Council members can provide positive reinforcement for good ideas and add suggestions for further refinements. They can also challenge ideas that may lead to problems for the colleges or consortium. In short, they can serve as a sounding-board for discussion of ideas before presentation to the college presidents and also present issues at meetings of college presidents to draw out their views before the ideas of the consortium leader are discussed. The same process can be useful when developing a strategic plan. If the planning is not directed by someone completely independent of the association, there needs to be provision for multiple voices from outside the group to be heard.

Working together -- either centrally, cooperatively or collaborative -- is becoming increasingly important, given current economic trends. Perhaps true collaboration in higher education will become more evident as new financing models call upon some institutions to pay a little more than they currently do so the many can pay less.

I hope that the consortium I led (with lots of help from lots of people ) will continue to thrive. I also hope that other consortium leaders may gain from my reflections on what I learned over more than 25 years so they can develop new models of collaboration to strengthen the education of students via working together for the common good.


Alice Brown retired in July as the first president of the Appalachian College Association.


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