Here’s a COVID-era case for inter-institutional collaboration

The wisdom of forging higher ed collaborations while being pummeled by wave after crashing wave of challenge

Echoing the adage that necessity is the mother of innovation, COVID realities have compelled existing higher ed consortia to work together in new ways and spurred the emergence of new relationships to tackle shared problems.

COVID’s lesson is clear: inter-institutional collaboration offers an effective pathway for getting done what needs to get done.

Cristin Toutsi Grigos, the senior director of public policy and strategic communications at the Association of Governing Boards, says, “Since the pandemic hit, we’ve seen a surge in engagement from board members as they value convening with other higher education leaders to share, learn, and develop ideas.”

“The business model for higher education is under severe stress,” she adds. “We’re often asked to assist institution, system, and foundation leaders in developing strategies for long-term prosperity, and collaborative efforts are more often than not part of the equation.”

Coordinated COVID responses

Whether within the context of long-established consortia or one-off, short-term alliances, institutions with overlapping interests and shared needs have joined forces over the past year to do everything from negotiating access to COVID tests and plexiglass dividers, to advise local lawmakers about the needs and constraints of campus communities.

Debra Mashek
Debra Mashek

Seven institutions in western Massachusetts (Amherst, Greenfield Community College, Hampshire, Holyoke Community College, Mount Holyoke, Smith, and UMass Amherst) played a pivotal role in communicating the needs of higher ed to state lawmakers.

“We met with seven state legislators representing our respective districts. It’s something we hadn’t done in a decade and had been meaning to do for a long time; the pandemic provided our final motivation,” says Kevin Kennedy, director of strategic engagement for Five Colleges, Inc.

Claire Ramsbottom
Claire Ramsbottom

Other groups, including the Association for Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts, negotiated access to mass COVID testing with 24-hour turnaround for results, empowering the individual colleges to make timely, data-informed decisions about their operations.

Colleges in the Washington, D.C. metro area joined forces with Baltimore City Public Schools to operate a mobile testing lab. The Associated Colleges of the Midwest created a just-in-time professional development series on online teaching for its 14 member institutions.

Colleges are also finding ways to leverage inter-institutional collaboration in service to local communities. At the Atlanta University Center Consortium (AUCC), the world’s oldest and largest association of historically Black colleges and universities, the presidents joined forces to promote community engagement activities, specifically workforce and economic development initiatives.

As one example, AUCC partnered with a local company to provide technical skills training for community members who lost jobs during the pandemic.

“The good working relationship amongst the four presidents of our member institutions has made AUCC more collaborative and the collaboration has increased during the pandemic,” says Said Sewell, the director of the organization’s Office of Academics, Research, and Student Success.

Costs of inaction

While inter-institutional collaborations have benefited a range of institutions on everything from admissions to helping faculty onboard to the once-novel world of online teaching, the costs and rewards of consortial work are not always easy to calculate, much less communicate to stakeholders who may instinctively turn inward to focus exclusively on the needs of their institutions.

Although inter-institutional collaboration offers tremendous promise, it can also be an incredible lift. This year, every college and university has been in reactive mode, leaving very little time to plan ahead, vision, or forge new alliances.

It can be hard to justify the necessary investment of time, social capital, finances, and shifts in workflows necessary for effective inter-institutional work when being pummeled by wave after crashing wave of challenge, as has been the case for every higher ed leader over the past year.

Yet, evidence suggests that, at least in the corporate world, those organizations that reach out to connect with others better weather the trials and tribulations, compared to those that sever ties and turn inward.

Given the continued instability of the situation on the ground, perhaps it makes sense to wait a few years before engaging in substantial inter-institutional work? Higher ed leaders caution against that move, noting the significant cost of inaction and the need to invest now in the relationships that will pay dividends in the future.

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Kennedy notes, “When considering inter-institutional cooperation, the first question should not be ‘why?’ but ‘why not?’ Developing relationships with other institutions, even if it just means quarterly, hour-long meetings among key administrators, builds connections that can lead to more ambitious collaborations when times are good, and can create bonds of trust and support to help sustain us in times of crisis. And, like it or not, there will always be times of crisis.”

As higher ed leaders begin transitioning out of reactive mode, now is the time to invest in mutually beneficial relationships with other institutions. Doing so not only helps institutions navigate inevitable trials, but also affords capacities on academic, student affairs, and operational fronts that few individual institutions can realize on their own.

Toutsi Grigos highlights what’s at stake. “Colleges and universities can’t afford not to collaborate during these difficult and uncertain times. Building capacity through collaborative initiatives can not only sustain individual institutions but also enhance their capacity while ensuring the success of higher education as a whole.”

Debra Mashek, a social psychologist and who has been an administrator in college and nonprofit settings, is a member of the Association for Collaborative Leadership. Claire Ramsbottom is the executive director of Colleges of the Fenway.

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