View from the Board Chair: Boards Must Be Catalysts for Collaboration

By Lyn Trodahl Chynoweth    //    Volume 19,  Number 5   //    September/October 2011

I have a rather large garden that takes a lot of work: fertilizing, planting, weeding those annoyingly prolific pests, feeding, watering, and finally, harvesting the produce for immediate use or “putting up” for the winter. Right before I drafted this article, I was tending to the garden. I had just come from a hallway where we have pictures of our dozen grandchildren displayed. One of them is off to college this fall—and I stared for a good bit at her baby picture. (Can she really be 18 years old?)

An obviously far more serious topic that occupies my thoughts as I write this is the fiscal crisis facing our nation. Our politicians have been wrestling with budget reductions, the debt ceiling, the downgrade of our bond rating, and overall unrest about the state of the American and world economy. The issues aren’t much different from those with which we have all grappled in recent years, although on a greater scale. The need for working together, collaborating, is such an obvious need, yet it seems to happen far less that it should.

Given these disparate reflections, you might appropriately ask, “What’s the point here?” So let me get to a couple themes.

First, the role of higher education in securing the future of our country has never been greater. None of us can predict what will happen in the coming months, so I often wonder how we should plan to prepare our young people for a world a few years hence that will be different from anything we can now imagine. Our colleges and universities are the “gardens” where young people grow—where they learn to think, question, and solve problems that have not yet even surfaced.

Second, as board members who govern our institutions of higher education, we must be catalysts for change. We must be much more outwardly focused and willing to lead growing collaboration across institutions and within them. The kind of collaboration that is required now has not been essential previously. Today, the need is compelling. It is required financially. It is necessary to meet the needs of the communities in which we operate. It is vital to demonstrate and model behavior that students, faculty members and administrators should see and mimic.

It is difficult to stop doing things we’ve done “forever” and to start working in ways that are new to each of us. However, that is no excuse for inaction. There are plenty of examples (including some in this magazine) that demonstrate the value of how to work together more effectively and efficiently.

In the Lehigh Valley, for example, we have an association of six independent institutions, the Lehigh Valley Association of Independent Colleges (LVAIC). We’ve benefited from collaborative opportunities that are essentially the low-hanging fruit: health-care-cost reduction, enhanced purchasing power, and sharing professional development for student-life staff, among others. There is much yet to consider administratively, academically, and with facilities, to name just a few opportunities. We all want to protect that which differentiates our institution from others, but we must be willing to tweak our distinct cultures a bit to ensure that we provide students with the excellent education they deserve. Collaboration is no longer an option; it is a mandate.

I’m not enough of a Pollyanna to suggest that major collaborative advances in the sharing of common intellectual capital across our institutions will happen in my lifetime. But I am concerned that if we don’t make a few more inroads, they won’t happen in my grandchildren’s lifetimes either. And that worries me.

We can’t do much about things that are not in our control in our lives; weather conditions or pests may sometimes ruin our garden produce. But we surely can take action on those things that are in our control. The negative economic conditions that are so pervasive today should fuel a fundamental shift in attitude and action. Our students deserve our collective energy to help them prepare to lead and serve in an everchanging world.

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