Want to thrive in higher ed? Practice “radical cooperation”

The fast track to success isn’t competition, but banding together with others

In a higher education landscape marked by a shrinking student population and increasing uncertainty, institutional longevity—if not short-term survival—is top of mind for most. What many at-risk institutions fail to see, however, is that a primary focus on competition is a precarious survival strategy that more often than not, backfires. Cooperation, not competition is the way out.

When institutional longevity is threatened, cooperation with others vying for the same goals feels anything but intuitive. In fact, focused on maintaining a competitive advantage, there is a strong and instinctive tendency among most to play their cards close to their chest. The idea that “I will have less if I share with you” makes the notion of cooperation in this instance truly “radical.” As I’ve witnessed over the past 18 years leading The Chicago School of Professional Psychology and then TCS Education System, however, the fast track to thriving is actually banding together with others.

Partner with others

Significant power lies in numbers. By letting down their guard, like-minded institutions committed to complementary missions stand to gain an inordinate number of mutual benefits by partnering with one another. Group continuity and partnership at this level offers the promise of shared expertise, expanded insights, the opportunity to learn third party what has and hasn’t worked, and extend all group members’ reach, benefitting the whole.

Great examples of sectors ripe for partnership range from seminaries and community arts organizations to social service agencies, liberal arts colleges and beyond. Not only would banding together afford these groups a larger repository of innovative ideas to advance their collective aims, but also the opportunity to succeed individually – from new program development to multi-denomination bridge-building within the community.

Recognize Your Strengths

Though it’s been said that the devil is in the details, push yourself to think beyond the granular day-to-day operations of your institution to move the needle in a more meaningful way. While most colleges and universities spend substantial resources and energy on the finer points of their operations, few devote the same level of effort mining for untapped opportunities beyond their natural purview. Perhaps your institution is better at academic development and blue sky collaboration. Concerning yourself less with who is plugging in the IT, marketing or finance and more with large-scale innovation through that focused collaboration with others will reward you in spades. The truth is, whether it’s mastering the finer points of accreditor compliance or uncovering esoteric tax vulnerabilities by leveraging the resources and expertise of a larger group, you gain the benefit of a more robust infrastructure that frees you to collaborate on larger initiatives capable of fueling accelerated success—from complete institutional turnarounds and exponential enrollment growth to geographic expansion.

Think holistically

Small thinking begets minor results. If you want your university to thrive, expand your focus. A universe of meaningful opportunities leveraging community partnerships exists to extend your reach, from open dialogue roundtable discussions to student academic rotations. Working with organizations from the community where your college operates to others around the world is a priceless opportunity. It not only provides you with key insights to the post-graduate skill sets needed from your graduates that can ultimately shape your curriculum and drive enrollment, but also provides students with an expanded sense of their skills application in the world—creating individuals that can engage across culture, systems, and nations.

While consciously making a shift from operating at a competitive level to a cooperative one can feel counterintuitive at the outset, it’s invariably worth the effort. Colleges that adopt Radical Cooperation strategies to overcome limited resources, an overly narrow focus and a shrinking pool of students are well-positioned to not only survive—but thrive in even the most tumultuous of higher ed climates.

Michael Horowitz is a nationally recognized strategic leader. He currently serves as president of TCS Education System and volunteers his expertise as a Consultant Evaluator and Team Chair for the WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC).


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