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Collaborating to Achieve Results

Author: Michael Preston, Executive Director, Florida Consortium of Metropolitan Universities

Higher education is a competitive business. Competition is fueled by a need for universities to consistently grow, jockey for research dollars, and to place themselves at the top of the college rankings. For much of the history of higher education the concept of universities and colleges working together and sharing proprietary information is not only rare but is usually frowned upon (Burns, Crow, and Becker, 2015). However, under the growing influence of state legislators and business leaders the call for institutions to find ways to collaborate to increase access, share technology, and provide innovative courses of study has become an inevitable necessity in today’s higher education landscape (Zaharchuk, Marshall, & King, 2015). The result of this call to action has been the beginning of a sea change in how colleges and universities see and utilize inter-institution competition. Instead of being consistent rivals for shrinking state, federal, business, and grant resources a number of universities are finding collaboration can actually leverage their university’s academic profile, increase production, and have a greater impact on student success.

Virtually everything we know about group dynamics tells us as educators that the wisdom of crowds almost always gets a better result than the lone-wolf approach. The reason is simple: When people (and institutions) are working together on the same project they all tend to see the same problem with a different lens – and that results in added perspective.
But the vast majority of us resist collaboration. Why is that? The answer can be as simple as the American Spirit itself.

In her 2009 book, “Organizing Higher Education for Collaboration,” author Adrianna Kezar posits that “Western philosophies and values celebrate the individual and individual achievement.” She basically makes the case that generally individuals are rewarded and awarded for their hard work and we, as universities, value a similar ethos. This ethos can be a detriment to higher education because the lone-wolf university model is not what business leaders tend to value when looking for competent and career-ready college graduates.

In 2015, the IBM Institute for Business Value pointed the finger squarely at higher education in its report “Pursuit of Relevance.” The authors made the case that the technological innovation and economic shifts in our changing world will demand a higher-education system that can change with it. In the report, the authors summed up the changing role of higher education this way: “Technological innovation and industry demands are now moving too rapidly for higher education to adapt in its current form. The answer to the dilemma in higher education will not be found in incremental improvement. Rather, the solution involves a systemic transformation that prioritizes more practical and applied curricula, exploits disruptive technologies, and strengthens and expands ecosystem partnerships.”

We know collaboration works from both a philosophical and a process standpoint. The drawback is higher education is not generally wired to be collaborative. Most universities prefer to socialize, (read: attend conferences) in groups but work, (read: meet educational goals and outcomes) in solitude, usually because the perception is the university has more control over the finished product and will yield the benefits of a job well done through additional funding and growth. 

The Florida Consortium of Metropolitan Research Universities is an example of this type of innovative collaboration designed to bring three universities with similar institutional profiles together to solve common problems and to impact students success at levels each institution could not do on their own. Established in 2014, the Florida Consortium is a partnership between The University of South Florida, The University of Central Florida, and Florida International University. These three research focused, large, metropolitan universities serve the cities of Miami, Tampa, and Orlando and maintain similar student success profiles. For many years the Consortium members considered the other as both competitive and as a rival in the way of their individual university’s success. This initial partnership gave Consortium members the momentum to forge additional partnerships through direct investment by each institution and with the assistance of  Helios Education Foundation we are receiving both the resources and the intellectual partnership to amplify our efforts.

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