APLU Members React: Forging Effective Partnerships to Sustain Institutional Change

Moderator: Beth Mitchneck, Program Director for ADVANCE, National Science Foundation
Panelists: Kimberlee Shauman, Professor of Sociology and Associate Director of ADVANCE, University of California, Davis; Loretta A. Moore, Interim Vice President for Research and Federal Relations and Professor of Computer Science, Jackson State University; Susan Carlson, Vice Provost for Academic Personnel, University of California, Office of the President

At this year’s meeting of the Association of Public Land-grant Universities, a session brought together academic leaders and other higher education partners to provoke innovative ideas in intra-, inter-, and extra-institutional partnership. The Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) convened a panel of National Science Foundation ADVANCE Program awardees representing the voices of both faculty and administrative leaders. During the session, they shared their lessons on partnerships—within and beyond campus—that improved the working environment for faculty throughout their careers, while also improving their institutions’ decision-making processes and absorptive capacity for future change efforts.

This program did not just identify data-informed best practices; it also engaged APLU members who care about forging sustainable partnerships. This was accomplished through a reflective exercise. The panelists believe that asking the participants to stop and think about their own practice would help them to frame their thoughts within their institutional context. The reflection exercise asked participants to consider:

  • A problem that cannot be resolved by an individual (i.e., requiring partnership)
  • What is at stake? What could be gained by taking action? What are the consequences of inaction?
  • Who are the potential partners?
  • Up to three actions that can be taken in the immediate future to move forward with this partnership

This briefing is a summary of the comments from the participants at this session.

What are the problems?

The challenges indicated by respondents ran the gamut from issues pertaining to constituent groups (e.g. faculty, students) to issues affecting the university as a whole.  However, there were a few commonalities: more than one in five participants were seeking partnerships to increase efficiencies or improve processes. One in four participants indicated that partnerships could help to pool resources or create opportunities to increase external funding. In other words, a significant proportion of attendees see partnerships as a means for economic sustainability and growth.

One respondent mentioned working across organizations (colleges, departments, offices) while another mentioned building community partnerships. Still another mentioned creating a culture that promotes interdisciplinary collaboration. Whether for internal or external collaboration, APLU members have demonstrated their interest in and need to break down traditional silos to connect with new partners.

What is at stake?

The session attendees provided distinct definitions of the stakes. Nearly half the respondents discussed their institution’s inability to capitalize on opportunities. Indeed, missed opportunities and an inability to maximize the “ROI” of existing partnerships were the most common responses to this question. For example, some APLU members discussed the challenges associated with pooling resources and creating efficiencies. Others mentioned the importance of building these partnerships with the capacity to adjust in times of change. They felt that effective partnerships could make their universities more efficient as we move into a future with less stable funding and more nimble as the pace of change accelerates.

Participants were concerned also with the human implications of the inability to build sustainable partnerships. How could partnerships impact the constituencies that land-grant institutions engage with most often? Nearly one in three attendees cited faculty, the drivers of research and teaching, as the audience that could benefit most by deepening partnerships. Many reported concerns about their ability to recruit, retain, and develop a faculty with the skills to teach the next generation of students and build research agendas for the twenty-first century. Participants expressed concerns about keeping faculty engaged without strong partnerships. Other respondents feared that the inability to cultivate partnerships would impact the educational and economic development of their states and regions. An institution’s ability to build partnerships within the region and to attract and retain high quality faculty is certain to have lasting impacts on students from recruitment through post-graduation employment.

Finally, some respondents discussed the importance of partnerships as “the soul” and “the culture” of the land-grant mission. How could a land-grant university exist without strong roots in partnerships? Because partnerships are built on trust, land-grants must prove themselves as good partners in order to maintain existing relationships and to cultivate new ones. Being a good partner begets more (and better) partnerships, but the converse is also true—perhaps with greater consequences.

Who are the potential partners?

A review of the participants’ reflection sheets pointed in a very clear direction: partnerships do not happen behind a desk; they happen when individuals get out of their offices and connect. Indeed, over two-thirds of participants committed to some sort of plan to reach out to potential partners. They had learned from the panelists that finding the partners within and outside the university who have a track record for such relationships will increase the odds of long-term sustainability. Different partners can bring different strengths, of course, to be examined and exploited: some are better partners because they have a strategic advantage, others offer specific resources, and still others are just very good at adapting to the groups with whom they work. .

Another theme from APLU members’ comments is that partnerships are more likely to thrive when they are embedded in existing structures. In over half of the responses, participants described the importance of developing structures and processes that facilitate partnerships, such as professional development for chairs and programming that incentivizes collaborative work. One participant described the development of a network for disseminating employment credentials to address the “two body problem”. This network would enable universities to provide local employers with the opportunity to engage with, and ultimately hire, the spouses and partners of candidates.

A clear message—and caveat

In all, the message is clear: new or reimagined partnerships are crucial for land-grant success. While engagement between stakeholders is at the heart of APLU members’ work, partnerships do not happen without sustained commitment. As the panelists’ NSF ADVANCE experiences have demonstrated, lasting partnerships—like research initiatives—require design and forethought as well as regular assessment and maintenance.

There is a caveat to consider. Partnerships struck just for the sake of partnership will wither on the vine. These relationships must be the core work of the institution, and not just a public relations gimmick. Beyond identifying the right partners, leaders must understand and articulate how each side of the relationship benefits and that everyone must, at some point, relinquish some control. When these ideas are put forward in good faith and with thoughtful planning, they have the potential to create synergy beyond the capacities of the individuals involved.