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Deploying Collaborative Leadership to Reinvent Higher Education for the Twenty-First Century
Since the launch of its national Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative in 2005, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has commissioned four national surveys of employers (AAC&U 2007; AAC&U 2008; AAC&U 2010; and AAC&U 2013). In those surveys, business and nonprofit leaders across a wide array of sectors provided information about what new college graduates need to know and be able to do to succeed in the twenty-first-century global economy. Consistently, employers say that “teamwork skills,” especially deployed effectively in diverse settings, are essential for success in today’s world. More than 70 percent of those surveyed in 2010 said they thought higher education institutions should place more emphasis on developing this skill in all college graduates. In the 2013 study, more than 90 percent agree that “all students should have educational experiences that teach them how to solve problems with people whose views are different from their own.” Business and nonprofit leaders clearly believe that having employees that are adept at teamwork will assist them in succeeding in a volatile and competitive global economy. More and more, businesses are also encouraging and cultivating leaders who can collaborate not only within their companies, but also with other partner organizations and companies. Collaborative leadership is seen now as a competitive business advantage.
Higher Education and Collaborative Leadership
For years, many individual faculty members and academic administrators have been creating new classroom practices and curricular models designed specifically to advance the skills of teamwork and collaboration in today’s college students. Other earlier editions of this journal have highlighted some of the more successful of these programs (Carey 2010; Carey 2011; Carey 2012a; Carey 2012b). However, too little attention has been paid to date to how teamwork is deployed within higher education institutions themselves. How are institutions supporting and advancing forms of “collaborative leadership” to improve their own capacity to navigate an equally volatile and challenging environment?
Just as in the business community, today’s challenging environment in and for the higher education sector demands more collaborative leadership—especially put to use to bridge even more sectors and divides than in the past. The higher education sector is a unique and complex set of institutions—public, private, for-profit, nonprofit—which are highly regulated by a variety of entities. Higher education’s organizational structures and the pressures on its unique business models are poorly understand by nearly everyone outside of the sector and many individuals within the sector, including some of its leaders. The need to increase understanding of institutional goals and practices in higher education highlights even further the necessity of collaboration and the cross-sector communication it requires and enhances.
If we are to meet increasing demands for a more highly educated populace while also maintaining quality and navigating changes in technology, funding patterns, accountability frameworks, and the diversity of our student bodies, we urgently need more effective and widespread collaborative leadership. Only through collaborative leadership can we hope to (1) develop greater understanding of our enterprise among the public, policy makers, students, parents, and members of the media in order to garner the financial and regulatory support we need to maintain healthy institutions; (2) increase the efficiency with which we maintain the quality of our operations; and (3) develop more effective ways to actually educate a far wider proportion of the society to meet twenty-first century demands. Whether our current fiscal challenges really represent a “new normal” or not, we must accelerate the use of new forms of collaborative leadership to extend the advantages of a twenty-first century liberal education to more students and, thereby, help fuel both an economic and a democratic recovery.
The concept of collaborative leadership has been gaining traction in the business community for years (Kanter 1994) and—in its most basic form—encompasses an emerging body of theory and management focused on leadership skills that deliver results across organizational boundaries. Most recently, the concept of collaborative leadership has been deployed not only in business but also in public policy and community organizing through a concept called “collective impact.” In a recent blog post in the Harvard Business Review, Ben Hecht suggests that, while the concept of collaborative leadership is not a new one, “what we’re seeing around the country is the coming together of nontraditional partners and a willingness to embrace new ways of working together” (2013). This issue of Peer Review asks if we are seeing the same trend in higher education, whether it is having a positive impact, and, if so, whether it can be expanded to more institutions and more individuals within colleges and universities.
As with many “new ideas,” instances of collaborative leadership or collective impact have abounded for years within higher education. The challenge is to figure out which of these examples have the most promise to expand and have a more systematic impact on institutional practices and educational outcomes. One can point, for instance, to the decades-long focus on the “scholarship of teaching and learning” that challenges the idea of the separation of solitary research pursuits from the attempt to improve the learning outcomes for undergraduates at both the classroom and program levels. As Pat Hutchings and her colleagues recently noted in The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Reconsidered, “Problems that were once the province of isolated pedagogical specialists are increasingly the shared concern of all who teach in higher education….In short, a rather extraordinary development is underway: the emergence in higher education of a teaching commons…[and] communities of educators committed to pedagogical inquiry and innovation” (ix).
For decades, select leaders in student and academic affairs have exercised collaborative leadership to advance more experiential learning opportunities for students. Such efforts have resulted in community-based research and service-learning opportunities that research suggests have profound impact on increasing student retention rates and on advancing important liberal education learning outcomes (Brownell and Swaner 2010). Unfortunately, too many institutions still do not recognize the scholarship of teaching and learning in tenure and promotion policies, and community-based research and service-learning programs still only involve a small fraction of all undergraduates. Is it time to bring these collaborative practices into the center of our organizational and educational practices?
Beyond these long-standing examples of internal collaboration, are there new collaborations we can and should be developing? For example, how can higher education leaders collaborate far more closely with business and nonprofit leaders to build understanding of what quality undergraduate education really must entail in the twenty-first century and, even more powerfully, develop more opportunities for current students to apply what they are learning in real-world settings with guidance from both educators and workplace or community mentors? How can educational leaders work much more closely with policy makers—including system heads and state higher education executive officers as well as legislators at both state and federal levels—to craft sensible policies that advance multiple goals for greater efficiencies, increased graduation rates, and quality learning outcomes for more students? This issue of Peer Review examines some of these traditional and new forms of collaborative leadership, all with an eye toward more systemic change to advance increasingly urgent goals for higher education institutions to become more productive and efficient while also raising levels of student achievement.
Lessons from the Collective Impact Movement
The good news is that we do have examples that, while isolated, already are having an impact and can provide models for higher education. What are the ingredients for success we might identify in good examples that might help us to bring them to scale? In his blog post referenced above, Hecht suggests that the collective impact movement that is bridging traditional sectors and boundaries to solve complex social problems offers five lessons for making this kind of effort successful. These lessons seem apt for higher education institutions as well. Lesson one is the necessity of clearly defining “what we can do together that we could not do alone.” For instance, can we really advance the levels of cross-cutting capacities in today’s college graduates if we don’t create many more opportunities for faculty—both full-time and part-time—to collaborate with each other to design curricula and compare notes on individual classroom designs and assignments? Can we bring more students to higher levels of achievement with more collaboratively designed curricula that scaffold experiences that build one on another? Can we improve teaching and learning practices more quickly if faculty members collaborate with one another on actually testing what works and what doesn’t across different disciplines, with different students, in different classroom settings (e.g. large, small, online, face-to-face, blended, flipped)? Can we really advance the completion agenda without collaboration among educators and policy makers to craft a common understanding of what high-quality learning really means in the twenty-first century?
Lesson two from the collective impact movement is to “transcend parochialism.” Higher education institutions can no longer thrive as precious islands of intellectual contemplation for small groups of mostly privileged students. Smaller private and public institutions must collaborate with one another, create tighter connections to their own local communities, and use information technology to connect their students to broader learning communities around the world. Higher education institutions of all sorts must be open to learning from other institutions, including those from different sectors. Community colleges have much to teach four-year institutions about tight community connections, responsiveness to business and policy maker needs, and success in educating underprepared students or students from communities traditionally not served well by higher education.
Lesson three is to “adapt to data.” Colleges and universities are, indeed, collecting far more data than ever before about their students—what they think, what they can do, what they are learning, where they go after they leave college. Educational leaders, however, are well aware that we too infrequently use such data to actually change practices and policies. A recent survey of chief academic officers (CAOs) sponsored by Inside Higher Ed found that, while three-quarters of all CAOs report that their institutions are generating data on student learning outcomes, only about 30 percent rate their own institutions as effective in “using data to aid and inform campus decision-making” (2013: 11). We clearly have work to do to bring together the necessary groups of individuals to make the best use of the data we are collecting.
We also are probably too cautious in actually acting on data before the full analysis is complete. Outside of higher education, there is far more willingness to “make adjustments on the fly,” as Hecht puts it. Academic leaders, in particular, have a crucial role to play in enabling faculty members and student affairs professionals to take risks and redesign curricula and student experiences. As José Antonio Bowen put it in a presentation at AAC&U’s 2013 annual meeting, academic deans must be in the business of “curating risk.” Data-driven decision making can include significant structural changes based on years of data tracking. It can also, however, involve trying out a new approach based on very preliminary data—knowing that it might not work and/or that it is likely to require modification over a period of time. It requires new forms of collaborative leadership exercised by those in such areas as institutional research, outcomes assessment, teaching and learning centers, and enrollment management.
Lesson four is to “feed the field.” AAC&U and other organizations like it play a crucial role in spreading the word about which collaborations are working, which innovations seem to hold promise, what even small-scale research might tell us about how to improve outcomes. AAC&U’s publications, research, and meetings on how educators can act on emerging research on “high-impact practices” is a prime example of this “feeding the field” to generate innovation and scale (Brownell and Swaner 2010; Kuh 2008).
Finally, Hecht suggests that collective impact requires institutions to create and “support the backbone.” Collaborative efforts in any setting cannot be successful if they are built on purely voluntary efforts by the early-adopters and the “true believers.” Educational leaders must enable “full-time” individuals to include collaboration as part of their “day jobs.” Even though it is powerful and necessary, collaboration is also messy and time consuming. We must find ways to stop doing other things that may no longer be necessary in order to “support, nurture, and feed the collaboration.”
As with many other sectors of our society, new forms of leadership are emerging in higher education. Higher education has the opportunity to cultivate these forms of leadership both in our students and in ourselves. And we have good initial examples of collaborative leadership and collective impact on which we can build and from which we can learn.
Association of American Colleges and Universities and Hart Research Associates. 2007. How Should Colleges Prepare Students to Succeed in Today’s Global Economy? Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
———. 2008. How Should Colleges Assess and Improve Student Learning? Employers’ Views on the Accountability Challenge. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
———. 2010. Raising the Bar: Employers’ Views on College Learning in the Wake of the Economic Downturn. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Carey, S. J., ed. 2012. “Frontiers of Faculty Work: Embracing Innovation and High-Impact Practices.” Peer Review 14, no. 3.
———. 2012. “The Liberally Educated Professional.” Peer Review 14, no. 2.
———. 2011. “Advancing What Works in STEM: A View from the PKAL Lens.” Peer Review 13, no. 3
———. 2010. “Internships and Experiential Learning.” Peer Review 12, no. 4.
Green, K. C. 2013. The 2011–12 Inside Higher Ed Survey of College and University Chief Academic Officers (Washington, DC: Inside Higher Ed).
Hecht, B. 2013. “Collaboration is the New Competition.” Harvard Business Review Blog Network (January 10, 2013).
Hutchings, P., et. al. 2011. The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Reconsidered: Institutional Integration and Impact. Stanford, CA: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and Jossey-Bass.
Kanter, R. M. 1994. “Collaborative Advantage.” Harvard Business Review 72, no. 4: 96–108.