The challenges facing American higher education today require transformative action. Amid a global economic crisis that has greatly diminished resources available to colleges and universities, the demands from legislators and the public to improve affordability, increase completion rates, and become more accountable grow more insistent each day. In higher education, which relies on “tradition” as a key value proposition, innovation has often been viewed with suspicion. But one innovation that is more valuable than ever is the development of higher-education consortia.
The collaboration among institutions that is facilitated by consortia is a vital lever for transformational change—the type of change that will enable colleges and universities to not just survive but to prosper.
What Constitutes a Consortium?
Consortia have evolved since the founding of the Claremont Colleges in 1925, which marked the first formal, voluntary association of higher-education institutions linked for academic cooperation. Four years later, the Atlanta University Center was established to share graduate programs among Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College. The next wave of consortial development took place in the 1950s and 1960s, as pressures from the growing public-university sector led private colleges to provide a more comprehensive experience by sharing resources, and burgeoning library expenditures encouraged all institutions to seek efficiencies in information management.
In the 1950s, Amherst College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst began sharing courses, faculty appointments, and library resources; a fifth institution, Hampshire College, was founded in 1970. The resulting consortium, Five Colleges, Inc., is a leader in inter-institutional collaboration.
The Council on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) was established with a similar agenda in 1958 by the presidents of the Big Ten institutions with start-up funds from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Today the CIC is launching global, multi-institutional “Big Science” projects as well as working with Google to digitize as many as 10 million volumes across all CIC library systems.
The federal government also spurred the development of state and regional consortia in the 1960s through Title II and III funds. It established, for example, the New Hampshire College and University Council in 1966, which encompasses 17 public and private institutions throughout the state and was formed expressly to strengthen educational services and improve operating efficiencies.
Today, according to Lewis Patterson, a pioneer in the higher-education consortium movement, consortia share five distinct characteristics. They are:
• Voluntary, not the result of regulatory or statutory mandate;
• Multi-institutional, not merely bilateral, agreements;
• Multifunctional, not single-purpose;
• Beneficiaries of long-term member support; and
• Managed by a substantial professional staff team.
Beyond those basic characteristics, consortia exhibit a wide range of structures and functions. According to a 2010 study by the Association for Consortium Leadership (ACL ), consortia currently:
• Conduct programs in professional and faculty development;
• Cross register students;
• Engage in library cooperation;
• Offer joint academic programs;
• Provide joint purchasing;
• Collaborate on international programs;
• Share information technology;
• Cooperate on emergency preparedness and planning;
• Foster economic development;
• Provide joint faculty appointments or faculty exchange;
• Encourage sustainability programs;
• Represent their members in legislative or public-advocacy areas; and
• Develop programs that increase access to higher education.
The Associated Colleges of the South (ACS ), a group of 16 liberal arts colleges, is an example of a wide-ranging, comprehensive consortium. ACS focuses on strengthening the liberal arts through collaboration by providing faculty-renewal programs, expanded opportunities for teaching and learning, and a chance for presidents, boards, and chief financial officers to examine new cooperative agreements that can relieve budget pressures in a challenging fiscal environment. For example, ACS has led the way in a distance-learning program that allows less-popular, yet still important, languages to be available to member institutions’ students.
Consortia exist to serve their members’ needs; they do so, however, by creating an entity that leverages the strengths of the individual members and goes beyond the sum of the parts. “The mission of any consortium is to enable the members to achieve together, through cooperation, what cannot be achieved alone,” note Frederick Baus, president and CEO of the University Center of Greenville, a consortium of seven institutions in South Carolina, and Claire A. Ramsbottom, executive director of the Colleges of the Fenway (COF), a consortium of six colleges in Boston, in a 1999 New Directions for Higher Education article, “Starting and Sustaining a Consortium.”
“A successful consortium supports its participants through shared risk and reward,” Baus and Ramsbottom observe, “at the same time strengthening the capacity of each partner college to pursue its unique institutional mission.”
While many consortia initially were focused on the idea of improving efficiency through sharing physical resources, academic resources, or administrative services, the last few years have witnessed an increased emphasis on improving effectiveness by encouraging innovation through collaboration. And effectiveness in higher education is crucial, especially given the growing consensus that the old ways of operating are not up to the task in today’s changchanging environment. The increasingly urgent need for institutions to innovate through consortial relationships mirrors a current trend toward collaboration in business and industry. A recent issue of the Harvard Business Review focused on the skills needed to foster the kind of collaborative problem solving in companies that leads to new and creative solutions. Those skills are just as important to college and university leaders as they seek to expand their capabilities: connecting key players, allowing them the freedom and opportunity to develop innovative ideas, and overcoming institutional loyalties and cultural and organizational differences by concentrating on the benefits to be gained through shared results.
“Dialogue leads to relationships; relationships lead to trust; and trust leads to opportunity,” says Phillip DiChiara, managing director of The Boston Consortium. The Boston Consortium operates primarily as a learning association, in which “communities of practice” bring together business officers in each functional area to collaboratively tackle important issues.
Organizational learning has also emerged as central to the mission of the Colonial Academic Alliance (CAA), an academic consortium of 12 universities on the East Coast. Many of the member institutions of the CAA, for which I serve as director, have grown considerably in size and scope over the past decade. By systematically sharing knowledge through the consortium, staff members in student affairs, global education, assessment, and advancement are better adapting to the rapid pace of change on those campuses.
The Colleges of the Fenway are also learning and working together on a variety of issues, including international ones, and have developed a Global Education Opportunity Center. It brings in experts to teach members how to recruit international students and engage alumni who live abroad. As a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the growth of international consortia noted, “With higher education becoming an ever more international enterpise, membership in a network has become an increasingly important way for institutions to leverage their resources and reach a global audience in ways that few could do alone.”
Board Members Can Encourage Collaboration
As board members face the challenges of a remarkably fluid and demanding environment, they can play a key role in supporting collaborative efforts to improve efficiency and effectiveness.
A few questions to consider:
• In which consortia does your institution participate?
• What is the nature of the participation and what large-scale institutional needs does it address?
• When is it important to focus on issues of institutional brand and competitiveness, and when is it appropriate to join with other institutions to create value that goes beyond any one institution?
• What major impact can your institution have on higher education and the global society by collaborating with other institutions to increase capacity?
• What kinds of structural changes must be made to allow faculty members, administrators, and students to think beyond the borders of their own institution? How can your college encourage innovation through collaborative ventures?
Board members and institutional leaders are charged with the long-term stewardship of their individual colleges and universities. Yet it is important for them to keep in mind that building capacity through collaborative initiatives can, in fact, sustain individual institutions—while ensuring the success of American higher education as a whole.
Making Working Together Work
By John Ottenhoff, vice president, Associated Colleges of the Midwest
Collaborative work among institutions on assessment has been a key activity for member colleges of the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM) over the past five years. After the colleges got over their initial horror—share sensitive data with competitors (even if they are also friends)?—most found important benefits in the collaborations. Having faculty colleagues at other institutions to shoulder the load makes the work of assessment more intellectually interesting, less prone to political maneuvering, and more likely to evolve into other productive projects.
Maybe that’s because we’ve been working together for over 50 years, starting with athletic competitions and branching out into off-campus student programs and opportunities for faculty members. But, even then, collaboration isn’t easy; it takes hard work and imagination to get colleagues to accomplish something together.
The ACM “Collegium on Student Learning,” recently completed with support from the Teagle Foundation, had a clear, important focus. Through it, as I wrote in a blog for the foundation, we’ve gained important insights about working across institutions:
The work has to be real, but so does the “play.” The collegium group set out to learn more about metacognition (thinking about thinking), how metacognitive strategies affect students’ mastery of learning, and how attention to metacognition can change the learning and teaching environment and reframe discussions about liberal education. Proposals for manageable classroom projects—new assignments or approaches, different questions and frameworks— kept the group working towards attainable goals. But we also found that unstructured, pleasurable time beyond the work agenda was vital in building networks of knowledge and sustaining the collaborative friendships that made this project so satisfying.
“Time on task” matters. It takes time and repeated meetings for research communities to come together, to find the right balance of trust, friendship, and core knowledge. Institutions and funding agencies should recognize that and find ways to bring and keep groups together. Virtual collaborations can happen—especially after groups have come together physically. Even then, unless the group reconvenes at least occasionally, it’s hard for the community to keep its shape.
Networks build new networks. Successful collaborations keep expanding. ACM faculty who met each other at a previous conference on assessment were soon joining forces in the Teagle Collegium— forming smaller groups focused on disciplinary assessment in education and biology and seeking new grants for collaborative explorations. Members of the collegium visited each other’s campuses, helping out with workshops and building new enthusiasm for working together. And those networks will influence other networks in the ACM, as we come together for meetings about our off-campus study programs or for our committees for minority concerns and the status of women. One hesitates to call it “viral” in this time of pandemics, but the ideas—and the enthusiasm for the work—are definitely spreading.
Members of Associated Colleges of the Midwest: Beloit, Carleton, Colorado, Coe, Cornell, Grinnell, Knox, Lake Forest, Lawrence, Luther, Macalester, Monmouth, Ripon, and St. Olaf.
By Lawrence G. Dotolo, president, the Virginia Tidewater Consortium for Higher Education
Located in southeastern Virginia, the Virginia Tidewater Consortium for Higher Education is a regional consortium established by the Virginia State Legislature in 1973. It is an academic consortium, designed to respond to educational needs that cannot be met by an individual institution.
For example, responding to the request for facultydevelopment programs, the consortium developed a summer institute on college teaching, now in its 34th year. In addition, it has instituted an annual Certificate on College Teaching and offers a workshop for deans and department chairs, thus allowing member institutions an option for professional development at a fraction of the cost of a national seminar.
In response to the demand for information about the new GI Bill, the consortium has offered two information sessions open to all the member colleges and the military. Representatives from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, the Virginia congressional delegation, and more than 500 other people have attended each program. The consortium continues to sponsor programs about the process of reimbursements for the new bill.
Even before 9/11 and the Virginia Tech shooting incident, the consortium established a Security and Emergency Preparedness Committee that resulted in joint emergency planning. The consortium sponsored a hurricane-preparedness exercise that allowed its institutions to determine the effectiveness of their plans in dealing with a simulated natural disaster. In addition, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security awarded the consortium two grants: one for $425,000 to develop a firstresponder alert system for a campus crisis, and the other for $350,000 to establish a critical infrastructure plan for higher education.
Another area of focus for the consortium is access to higher education. It operates the federally funded Educational Opportunity Center, designed to encourage adults from low socioeconomic backgrounds to attend college. This program serves over 3,000 adults each year. The State Council for Higher Education for Virginia has awarded the Virginia Tidewater Consortium a $165,000 grant to provide academic and financial-aid counseling services to at-risk youth.
Members of the Virginia Tidewater Consortium for Higher Education: Christopher Newport University, the College of William and Mary, Eastern Shore Community College, Eastern Virginia Medical School, Hampton University, Joint Forces Staff College, Norfolk State University, Old Dominion University, Paul D. Camp Community College, Regent University, Thomas Nelson Community College, Tidewater Community College and Virginia Wesleyan College: two Associate members, ECPI University, and Troy University; and, two Affiliate Members, Cox Communications and WHRO Public Media.
Managing Health-Care Costs and Building Trust
By Phillip DiChiara, managing director, The Boston Consortium
When the costs of healthcare premiums for The Boston Consortium’s member institutions crossed $500 million annually, their humanresource officers decided it was time to learn together how to reduce the rising rate of those costs. The scope of this issue was larger than anything previously attempted in the 15 years of our association, and we wondered whether we could enlist all members in an effort to resolve it.
We had to grapple with tough questions. Economies of scale can be attractive, but what level of compromise would have to be made? How could we find adequate common ground in a domain of such complexity? Would we give up before finishing our work? In the case of 12 colleges, the answers initially emerged slowly. But by the end of the process, mutual respect, deep knowledge, and enthusiasm were “baked into” it.
We came together to develop a shared health-management program, “Healthy You,” to help faculty members and other employees understand, improve, and maintain their health—and to avoid chronic conditions like diabetes or coronary disease. The first step was to speak with people both inside and outside of higher education who had experimented with ways to promote a healthy populace. Wellness programs abound, but a gap appeared in the area of disease management.
Our insurance carriers were adept at managing the chronic-disease states that represent a large majority of cost, but did far less for faculty and staff members who were headed toward such illnesses. Those were the people who were often the experienced core of our institutions’ leadership. Loss of their talent and organizational knowledge would be a threat to operational continuity as well as a future financial liability.
Conversations with the insurers and outside experts suggested that strong health-management programs were not sufficient. We needed two ingredients that are often missing: in-depth health data and incentives great enough to change health behaviors. (For example, most participating institutions are offering incentives to their employees like cash or gift cards.) Moreover, we learned that, as an individual’s needs and health status change, so should the program. One year’s incentives should be modified the following year. And a successful program aimed at tens of thousands of lives must employ many subtle efforts targeted at various cultural subsets.
The members’ breadth of understanding grew exponentially as each human-resource manager acted as a repository of knowledge for an issue or two that captured his or her personal interest. The collective wisdom of the more than 50 active participants represented a knowledge base that was used effectively to argue the tradeoffs and enable the development of a single collaborative program across all members.
The return on investment in the $24-million program will probably exceed two times that with healthier institutional workforces. But the unplanned outcome has been a renewed belief that collaboration serves us all well and is amazingly resilient when dealing within issues of complexity.
That is the aspect of collaboration that is often overlooked or forgotten: Relationships endure long after the project is over. Our capital investment of time and wisdom is returning a dividend in trust.
Members of the Boston Consortium: Babson College Bentley University, Berklee College of Music, Boston College, Boston University, Brandeis University, Emerson College, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northeastern University, Olin College, Suffolk University, Tufts University, Wellesley College, and Wheaton College.
Fast Facts about Consortia
The Association for Consortium Leadership (ACL), a national association of consortia and university centers, surveyed its 58 members in 2010. Almost half responded, and the results included the following:
- Nearly all respondents have a centrally organized office, with 60 percent located on a member campus.
- Membership size is predominantly fewer than 10 members.
- The board of directors of these consortia includes the member presidents of the institutions 63 percent of the time. Others members often include chief academic officers, financial officers, business leaders, and community organization leaders.
- The majority have between four and 10 board members.
- Sixty-seven percent have standing committees.
- Sixty-one percent of the organizations’ executive directors report to their board of directors, while others report to the chair of the board or the executive committee.
- Most consortia (79 percent) collect dues as a source of operating funds, and 43 percent are supported at least somewhat by grants or contracts.
- Annual operating budgets range from $13,000 to $35 million and most commonly between $1.2 million and $3 million.
From “Consortium and Center Diversity: Our Differences, Our Strengths” by Julie Goldman, former director of the Southeastern Conference Academic Consortium ; Anneke J. Larrance, executive director of Associated Colleges of the St. Lawrence Valley; and Susan Palmer, executive director of the Five Colleges of Ohio, Inc. Visit the ACL Web site for the full paper.
For more on this topic, listen to the podcast with Mary Frances Forcier and Phillip DiChiara.