In surveying and interviewing college and university leaders about what they see as silver linings arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, increased collaboration and strategic partnerships will prove to be among the positive outcomes. Below we outline the strategies and programs being implemented at the institutions with whom we spoke.
During our conversations, leaders placed emphasis on external partnerships – shared administrative services, consortia of academic programs, partnering among four-year schools and community colleges, and increased collaboration with governments, for example. Specific initiatives include:
Consortia – The Shared Services Model
Consortia are not new to higher education and some have been very successful. Think: The Claremont Colleges or the Five College Consortium. But, building a consortium needs to be strategic. While there can be some overlap in their academic programs and research enterprise, the institutions that comprise a successful consortium will be complementary. The cost savings achieved in the back office will enable students to benefit on the front end; students will be attracted to a school in the consortium for its unique identity and for the consortium’s complementary offerings and services. Consortia offer many of the benefits of merging institutions without the loss of institutional identity.
Community College Collaboration
For many students, especially underserved, underrepresented, and non-traditional students, community colleges are the gateway to higher education. Four-year colleges/R1s and community colleges should be cultivating collaboration and creating policies that facilitate student transfers and success. With limited mobility due to the pandemic, these partnerships will present new and different on-ramps to higher education and educational opportunities in the short run and maybe in the longer term for generations to come.
Leveraging the Private Sector and Public Sector Engagement
The opportunity to form alliances between higher education and private industry has already started, and now will be done with much more intentionality. Creating greater outsourcing of non-academic, ancillary services is top of mind. Partnerships with healthcare organizations for student support (mental and physical) that will likely include chat/AI/social media management for 24/7 response to student and constituent queries is also deemed important. New partnerships with corporate partners to address their workforce development needs will also steer institutional planning.
The notion of the campus community has taken on new meaning in 2020. With community members currently distanced and institutions using technology to keep students, faculty, staff, and administration connected, a blueprint is emerging for better community connection in a post COVID world. Linkages to social agencies and economic development initiatives will be valuable to the reimagined campus.
Responses also showed that there is important work to be done within organizations to ready campuses for the post COVID-19 era and to minimize institutional risk. Institution leaders are looking internally at their own organizations for greater collaboration. For example:
With the globe on pause, this is the perfect time for institutions to renew focus on mission, prioritize inclusivity, re-up their commitment to working effectively with faculty, staff and student governance bodies, and develop a closer working relationship with the governing board. Campus leaders recognize the threats posed by the sudden implementation of remote learning and working, potential enrollment gaps, and a decline in revenue. And they understand that collaborating internally to explore creative solutions will help to sustain their institutions. The institutions that are poised to achieve the most success will be those that actively encourage collaboration at all levels and embrace new and diverse thinking.
Institutions can model partnership behavior by inviting human resources and equity leaders to assist in identifying options for cross-organizational alliances. Often underleveraged in higher education, human resources offices are becoming central to creating and executing programs that invest internally. Thus, they need to be ready to play a more integrated role in talent acquisition and management. Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) leaders will help to ensure partnership explorations are inclusive and accessible across the enterprise and that equity is infused in the development and execution of internal partnership opportunities.
Enhanced Partnerships and Job Sharing
Though the current situation has forced remote work and learning, the leaders we spoke with have observed that relationships among colleagues are strengthening, and partnerships between departments and functions are emerging. For example, an Ivy League institution located in a state hard-hit by COVID-19 instituted a formal program to request staff support from less-busy offices in order to move expertise to busier areas. This program enables a strategic use of existing staff and enhanced morale for employees who are learning new skills and feel more valuable to their institution. Further, the “borrowed” employees will bring new perspectives and ideas to the work.
Cross-Institutional Training for Employees
As we continue through the pandemic and the post-COVID era, how do we ensure that a flexible, cross-trained culture is embedded into the campus DNA? The for-profit organizations best known for their successful hiring strategies have robust training programs at the entry-level and ongoing training modules as employees progress through the organization. They recruit the best and the brightest and place them in 12-to-18-month rotational training programs where trainees get exposure to the whole ecosystem of the enterprise before they are assigned to a specific area.
While a longer-term program may not address today’s issues, higher education institutions can adopt a cross-training methodology with existing team members at an expedited pace and roll it out more broadly as new faculty and staff are hired. Opportunities for working in roles beyond those they have traditionally filled can be important for keeping staff committed and engaged in these difficult times. And most staff have a degree of flexibility in their backgrounds that make this approach feasible. At one Ivy League institution, HR is leading the effort to train staff to support COVID-19 contact tracing, for example. Campuses stand to be much more successful when siloes are broken down and everyone has a broader picture of how the enterprise functions, as well as how it can better meet student needs.
Providing Curriculum in New Ways: IT and the Academic Endeavor
Campuses across the nation scrambled this spring to transition to online learning, and by and large students seemed to accept whatever their school’s offering was. But students’ (and parents’) expectations for the future are likely much greater, and institutions will need to deliver. Campuses have kicked into high gear to support faculty in creating a quality, stimulating online learning experience. However, in order to elevate this experience and demonstrate value, the academic division and IT departments must work in partnership.
We spoke with an IT director whose department serves a consortium of several institutions. Although the services provided have historically focused on customer service, the department has experienced a dramatic increase in requests to partner directly with individual faculty in planning curricular approaches to the new online learning environment.
IT must continue to dig deep into the curriculum to understand the needs of faculty in course delivery. Likewise, faculty will need to leverage the IT specialists to become facile with technology tools and to learn how to deliver a dynamic curriculum online. Particularly challenging will be translating hands-on, experiential coursework to online learning. If instructors think boldly about the power of online learning and invite IT to be part of the strategic conversation, students will likely embrace this new academic experience and learn at their best.
Gaining Institutional Support
As with any significant change to the campus environment, leaders will need to work in close partnership with their governance structures, both at the board level and on campus, in order to ensure that the community understands the value of these enhanced connections, and feels confident that giving up the siloed structure of the past will be well worth it. Particularly important will be the clear articulation that these enhanced partnerships are not for the purpose of reducing employee counts, but rather of enhancing employee satisfaction, enterprise operations, and ultimately the student experience.
As the coming months unfold, institutions will continue to seek ways to effectively meet the needs of their stakeholders. Leaders at all levels will need to be diligent, adaptable, and focused as they guide their institutions through and beyond these challenging times. Despite the likely hurdles, organizations with robust internal and external collaboration models are likely to emerge stronger and better positioned for the future.