October 08, 2015
Foundation officers frequently utter these phrases. In most cases, these words reflect a heartfelt concern for change in the desired area, and, to be sure, big bucks often are put behind such efforts. Still, scaling and sustaining innovation in colleges and universities is challenging work. Consortial leadership can make it easier, yet, as we have found, it is often overlooked and underestimated as a change strategy.
The Teagle Foundation has been making grants to higher education consortia and multi-campus collaboratives for more than a decade now. The strategy rests on the basic premise that "critical friends" — a term that higher education scholar George Kuh uses to describe friends who help you think better and do better work — need to be built into the change process. External evaluations of the foundation's work conducted by leading scholars in the field corroborate the foundation's own finding that collaboration, a core feature of Teagle's grantmaking, pays off in terms of greater change and innovation on campus.
Consider the advantages. Consortial leadership and collaboration help institutions get beyond the "no one is our peer" mindset. The consortial network provides support and a sounding board, creates shared responsibilities among its members, allows for information and knowledge exchange, and provides multiple settings in which practices can be tested. Perhaps one grantee said it best: "Collaboration helped 'foster the baking of half-baked' ideas." Adapting a solution borrowed from elsewhere is often much easier than inventing the solution.
We also realize that collaboration has its drawbacks. Transactional costs exist with any collaboration. Relationships take time, meaning initiatives can be slow out of the gate. Higher education scholar Jillian Kinzie points to four stages of most collaborative work: developing a shared vision; creating trust; learning from one another and being open to risks; and strengthening infrastructure to enable collaboration. The benefit of working through established consortia (as opposed to ad hoc collaboratives) is that the former often move more quickly thanks to established relationships and an infrastructure already in place. To illustrate, below we highlight two projects that demonstrate how consortia are positioned to scale higher education innovation aimed at strengthening teaching and learning to benefit more students, while also having the potential to contain costs.
The first involves the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges (COPLAC), which is piloting a hybrid course-sharing arrangement with five of its member institutions. Over the duration of the three-year project, more than twenty courses in Native American studies will be offered across the five participating campuses in one of two ways: an "on the ground" advisor/mentor for students taking an online class from another campus, or an online course paired with a face-to-face intensive research experience. A range of disciplines — archeology, anthropology, history, religious studies, philosophy, and literature — are included in the project. For instance, one pilot involved a course on archaeology taught in the spring by a faculty member at Eastern Connecticut State University for students at that institution, the University of Alberta-Augustana, and the University of Minnesota-Morris who subsequently participated in a summer dig at a Native American site on Block Island. By innovating in course delivery, the project provided students with access to faculty expertise and an undergraduate research experience that they might not otherwise have had while still satisfying their major or minor requirements.
In the long run, this kind of hybrid learning arrangement can expand curricular offerings in a cost-effective fashion, enabling institutions to tap their membership networks for teaching expertise while lessening the pressure on them to try to be all things to all people. And while this level of engagement requires significant coordination in terms of tuition sharing and credit transfer, institutions coming together under the consortial umbrella have the advantage of being able to leverage established relationships built on trust and reciprocity.
The second example involves the Great Lakes Colleges Association, which is developing a consortium-wide center for teaching and learning. Most of us are aware that while institutions care about faculty development, they often are hard-pressed to come up with the resources to pursue such initiatives and only a handful can afford to dedicate space and staff to faculty development. What's more typical at smaller campuses is to give a faculty member responsibility for faculty development initiatives and provide released time accordingly. In such instances, while the faculty member is likely to have established his or her credibility with colleagues, the work can be challenging, especially as the faculty member is unlikely to be steeped in the literature on curriculum design and pedagogy, or have the necessary training to engage colleagues in discussions about teaching and learning.
A consortial center for teaching and learning, in contrast, can provide a means to develop a cross-campus cadre of faculty who are experts on teaching and learning while developing shared resources such as reading lists and webinars. The faculty leaders of such a center serve as ambassadors for good teaching and learning and enjoy the benefit of being "prophets from another land" when they facilitate workshops or consult on pedagogical issues beyond their home institution. Moreover, this type of collaboration moves a campus cost center to the consortium, where it can draw on a broader base of support. The norm in consortial cost-saving arrangements tends to involve the sharing of business operations (for example, IT or policing); a consortial center for teaching and learning, on the other hand, provides a model for deepening collaboration on the academic side of the house.
Consortia can be great hubs for experimentation and are ideally positioned to scale successful innovations on member campuses that reach more students and sustain those innovations through collaboration and resource-sharing. So, the next time you are noodling about how to scale and sustain innovation on your campus, consider a consortial approach. You may well find that the benefits far outweigh the challenges.
Loni M. Bordoloi is program director and Anne W. Bezbatchenko is program consultant at the Teagle Foundation. To learn more about consortial leadership and its many benefits and/or explore ways to capitalize on the opportunities and challenges associated with this work, see the recent Teagle report on scaling and sustaining innovation by Adrianna Kezar, professor of higher education at the University of Southern California, which includes a significant section on consortial leadership and multi-campus collaboration.