Liberal Education

The True Power of Collaboration: From Cooperation to Partnership

It is no secret that higher education faces significant economic challenges. What is less clear is how to address this new economic landscape. One idea that gets tossed around often, and maybe too casually, is for nearby institutions simply to work together. It seems like an obvious alternative for two institutions to consider: don’t have two of everything. Share some things, and enjoy the economies of scale that might come with that. Great in theory, but where exactly does one start?

We are all familiar with the most traditional representations of these types of partnerships. Of course, institutions can buy copy paper and other commodities in bulk. Students can cross-register for classes on multiple campuses (often with conflicting and difficult-to-manage schedules). Institutions can even have shared technological services or electronic card catalogs. Colleges tend to move immediately to such practical possibilities, when what they need to do is discuss and understand what it truly means to work together. The real challenge of working in, and benefitting from, a partnership turns on truly integrating core parts of the institutions’ missions. The place to start is philosophical, not practical, when considering such partnerships. And, yes, that philosophical starting point includes mission-central areas like academics and entails giving up some independence.

At the College of Saint Benedict (CSB) and Saint John’s University (SJU), we have taken up this challenge of working together to improve the experience of our students. It began nearly fifty years ago, in the late 1960s, during a time in which many single-sex institutions were thinking about their futures. Most of these institutions either went coeducational on their own or merged with another school to form a new coeducational university.

Our institutions contemplated merging then, too, but chose a different path because we believed there were significant benefits of being a college for women (CSB) and a college for men (SJU). Yet we also believed there were great benefits to our students, both women and men, of working more closely together than we had historically. Our motivations were initially to provide a better education to our students, yet in that process we found the kinds of economies many institutions are seeking today.

The College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University

The College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University have a collaborative relationship that is unique in American higher education. CSB and SJU are both nationally ranked Catholic, residential, liberal arts colleges. The combined enrollment of more than 3,600 students makes CSB and SJU among the largest of the nation’s liberal arts colleges. It is impossible to do justice to our partnership, which we call a coordinate relationship, in the space we have here, but over the decades we have fully integrated three areas: admissions, communications, and academic affairs. Yes, we share one academic program: faculty teach on both campuses, we have one faculty senate, we share one provost and academic affairs office, and we share one academic affairs budget—among several other jointly funded areas.

In addition, our students share one academic program in which they meet identical academic requirements and attend classes together on both campuses according to a single academic calendar. The two institutions approach prospective students and families through a joint admission office offering the advantages of two distinct campuses as well as a singular, cohesive academic experience and a coeducational social environment. This integrated learning experience combines a challenging liberal arts curriculum with extensive opportunities for international study, leadership, service learning, spiritual growth, and civic and cultural involvement.

Yet, CSB and SJU are two independent colleges. We provide a unique collegiate experience for young women at the College of Saint Benedict and for young men at Saint John’s University. We share a commitment to the development of the whole person, while also meeting the unique needs of both women and men in single-gender and coeducational experiences. Each college features its own physical campus, residence halls, dining halls, and traditions. We have separate student development programs, independent athletic programs, two advancement offices, and separate governing boards.

Building a partnership

Very early in our coordinate relationship the first tentative steps toward the integration of academic programs yielded immediate benefits. Cross registration had been possible for some time, as at many schools. But by beginning to intentionally combine academic departments, CSB and SJU immediately gave students access to more faculty and a wider range of expertise and class offerings. The colleges saw economies both through less duplication of faculty and course offerings and through higher enrollments in traditionally small classes like Classics and upper-level science offerings. Behind the scenes, benefits were derived by simplifying the academic administration. Other parts of the academic enterprise followed the integration of departments. We moved toward a single library administration, one registrar and, as technology needs grew over the years, to a single information technology department.

It was our philosophical and later practical movement toward a joint academic enterprise that yielded the most significant benefits. In fact, the natural place where most partners should, but rarely do, look for benefits is academic affairs. We know that the integration of our academic strands is what makes the coordinate relationship work, not just in terms of our public commitment to one another but also because within the fiercely competitive environment for higher education, the coordinate relationship between the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University has enhanced educational opportunities for the students of both colleges. Our partnership enables us to bring resources together to ensure the success of all students and the long-term viability and vitality of each institution.

We absolutely have, and will continue to maintain, our separate identities, but we also have a third identity, that of partnered institutions, a CSB/SJU identity that is as important to our students as being a “Bennie” at Saint Benedict’s and a “Johnnie” at Saint John’s. Those three identities all provide distinct benefits to our students. And, most significantly, it is the student experience and outcomes that are most important on any campus.

A shared mission focused on student outcomes

How does our unique partnership support improved student outcomes? Because we achieve efficiencies by operating together in critical areas, including our entire academic enterprise, we are able to deploy resources in an individualized and custom manner in support of our students more efficiently and effectively than either institution would alone. The partnership and the advantages it conveys to our students have allowed us to serve, and achieve excellent outcomes for, diverse groups of students.

For example, our overall first- to second-year retention rate has averaged 89 percent for several years. Collectively, 28 percent of our students are first-generation college students, and American students of color comprise 20 percent of our student body. Nearly 80 percent of our students graduate in four years, and 99 percent are employed either in graduate school or in full-time volunteer service within one year of graduation.

Because of our partnership, we are able to achieve these extraordinary student outcomes with very limited financial resources. Among the top one hundred liberal arts institutions, the College of Saint Benedict has the second smallest endowment. Saint John’s University has the seventeenth smallest. Our success clearly has not been the product of robust financial circumstances. To the contrary, because of limited resources, we have been forced to find and utilize collaboration and coordination to improve outcomes. Hence, our partnership has reaped the economic benefits many colleges hope for, though it, of necessity, began with a commitment to student learning.

Concluding thoughts and cautions

So how does one go from two wholly separate institutions to coordinate and interdependent schools? It is first worth noting that this integration did take decades. The benefits of integration are typically not found overnight, if our experience is any guide. There are institutional histories to remember, campus cultures to adapt, and personalities with which to contend. While there are benefits to working more closely, there are also costs, and the critics will be quick to identify them. To be successful leaders on both campuses, the leadership must be deeply and publicly committed to the changes, be patient, and be openly willing to give up some control and accept some costs for their campuses.

Our arrangement of interdependence, a permanent one, periodically benefits from adjustments in how each institution functions. Our administrators and two boards review our governance practices, structures, and operations on an ongoing basis, and over time effect changes in them, in order to ensure a dependable and efficient model to pursue the mission of each institution and effectively maintain our partnership.

We have often heard our higher education colleagues decry our relationship as too complicated—the stakes are too high, the loss of independence is too great. Yet we would argue that for a partnership to truly have meaningful benefits to both institutions, and especially to the students we serve, both partners must accept real risk to their institutional independence and separate identities.

It is this last point that we think is most relevant for institutions seeking to partner today. Partners have to trust each other enough to give up control of some crucial academic decisions. Today at CSB and SJU, we make all faculty hiring decisions jointly; we have a shared academic budget and multiple high-level joint administrators, including a common provost; and we tenure jointly. We are not independent institutions, in the common understanding of that phrase.

We encourage others thinking about partnerships to understand that to provide both economic improvements and mission-oriented benefits, institutions must think about how to integrate portions of their most precious components, starting with academic programs. This may generate significant controversies among administrators, faculty, students, and alums as the relationship must be negotiated at multiple intersections. And, it demands ongoing care for a relationship that can be challenging to navigate.

While in theory any partnership can be unwound, the reality of a true partnership is that it is very difficult to go back and there should be an enduring commitment to making the partnership work. Institutions that are prepared to move down this road must acknowledge that they may not be able to go home again. On the other hand, the changing environment for higher education already has made it eminently clear that home won’t be what it used to be for most institutions. Our experience suggests that it is possible for two institutions to maintain and nurture separate identities, while at the same time getting real benefits, academic and economic, from working closely together. It is not easy, but with the many challenges facing higher education, it may be an option more institutions will explore as they realize that buying in bulk, the Costco partnership model, is not the salvation of higher education.

To respond to this article, e-mail liberaled@aacu.org, with the authors’ names on the subject line.


Mary Dana Hinton is president of the College of Saint Benedict, and Michael Hemesath is president of Saint John’s University.

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