How Partnerships Can Strengthen — Not Save — Your College
Tips on getting the most out of institutional collaborations.
The message comes in to my public email address. It’s often from a campus CFO or a consultant working on behalf of the institution. We’re considering a new partnership with Campus X down the road, it begins. We want to share courses. Or faculty. Or back-office functions. We want to do what we’ve seen your campuses do. How should we start? Are you available for a one-hour Zoom call to give us advice?
I’m the executive director of a longstanding and well-known consortium, and vice president of the board for the premier professional association of consortia. My counterparts at other consortia and I routinely field such emails and calls. Collaboration has been a hot topic in higher-education circles. See, for instance, a recent repeat episode aired on the
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The message comes in to my public email address. It’s often from a campus chief-financial officer or a consultant working on behalf of the institution. We’re considering a new partnership with Campus X down the road, it begins. We want to share courses. Or faculty. Or back-office functions. We want to do what we’ve seen your campuses do. How should we start? Are you available for a one-hour Zoom call to give us advice?
I’m the executive director of a longstanding and well-known consortium, and vice president of the board for the premier professional association of consortia. My counterparts at other consortia and I routinely field such emails and calls. Collaboration has been a hot topic in higher-education circles. The Chronicle, for instance, has a research brief on “Stronger Together Than Alone? Assessing College Leaders’ Attitudes Toward Mergers and Other Partnerships,” EY Parthenon issued a report on “Why Collaboration Is Key to the Future of Higher Education,” and a recent repeat episode aired on the Inside Higher Ed podcast The Key on “Mergers and Major Cross-College Collaboration.” These narratives typically share a common arc: Higher education is in crisis, particularly small private colleges, and campuses should explore collaboration as a path to viability and cost savings.
Such recommendations amount to collaboration driven by exigency. And it’s here that I generally offer my first caution. The Five College Consortium, like most longstanding consortia, came into being out of shared interests. The member campuses collaborated willingly and voluntarily, at first informally, and then under formal structures such as 501(c)(3) organizations. In the case of Five Colleges, these partnerships date back more than a century, and in the mid-1960s we became a registered nonprofit formally called Five Colleges, Incorporated.
Importantly for many consortia, including my own, any of the members could walk away and survive as stand-alone institutions, but they choose not to. Five Colleges doesn’t exist to save any of the organizations; it was created to enhance them. Indeed, the original four institutions — Amherst, Mount Holyoke, and Smith Colleges, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst — came together in the mid-20th century to create the fifth college, Hampshire. The partnerships have evolved since the early 1900s but have always been driven by opportunity and vision, not necessity or financial exigency.
Indeed, the largest crisis point for Five Colleges arguably came in 2019 when one of our members briefly stumbled. To borrow a misquoted line from Mark Twain, reports of Hampshire College’s death were greatly exaggerated — the campus in 2022 is strong, with recent record-breaking fundraising and a growing enrollment. Its survival benefited from the consortium but didn’t depend on its sister institutions. Since the day of its founding, Hampshire has been a fully independent institution, and throughout its history, the college has paid its full share of consortial operating expenses, without subsidies from the other campuses or from Five Colleges. Our campuses don’t need the consortium; they want it. The day they stop wanting it is the day we cease to be a viable organization, and the day I am out of a job.
There is a saying in this field: If you’ve seen one consortium, you’ve seen one consortium. Our unique portfolios, staffing, and budgets are each tied to our own members’ interests. That makes it hard for us to serve as models. At Five Colleges, for instance, our zero-based budget model is unusual: The campuses do not pay dues. Instead, they pay for their share of the portfolio of programs and initiatives we provide on their behalf. Furthermore, we generally don’t operate our programs on contract; we rely on our founding documents, regular board votes, and the annual budget that reflects what the campuses have agreed to do for the coming year.
If you’ve seen one consortium, you’ve seen one consortium.
Perhaps the best indicator of how hard it would be to replicate our consortium is this: Our signature collaboration — open cross-registration — is provided without a single penny changing hands. There is no exchange of tuition dollars, no fee for the service of accepting one another’s students into courses. Indeed, there is no single agreement or contract that governs this cross-campus enrollment. The campuses participate in cross-registration first and foremost because of the nonmonetary value it brings to them and their students, not because it saves or earns them any money.
To an outside observer, it’s a mystery how this remarkable and long-lived student exchange functions. To those of us on the inside, this partnership happens because it is part and parcel of who we are. We could not operate cross-registration as a stand-alone program, but it makes sense as part of the full array of consortial offerings, which also include jointly hired faculty and shared museum software, coordinated library services and a 26,000-square-foot library storage facility, a captive-insurance company and risk-management services, a fiber-optic network, intercampus bus service, and more. (Ask me about our peat bog!)
So when other campuses come calling, seeking information on how we do what we do and guidance on how to replicate our collaborations, it can be difficult to translate this centurylong and milewide set of voluntary partnerships into actionable advice. But the questions continue to arise, and there are some general lessons that could help other campuses navigate the early days of exploring new partnerships, though they may not serve the collaboration-as-salvation narrative.
Begin from a place of strength. As much of the research literature on collaboration and teamwork notes, trust and openness are critical to success, but they can be hard to come by when the participants are operating in a state of crisis and uncertainty. The ideal time to begin building a partnership is when neither party needs to. Our five campuses began cross-registration not because any of them needed additional course offerings, but because adding courses enriched what they could each provide alone and provided larger enrollments for specialty and seminar courses. If you must begin your conversations on collaboration under duress, do what you can to emphasize the strengths your institution can bring to the table.
Give it time. Trust, relationships, and well-designed collaborative programs don’t happen overnight, but crisis-driven negotiations can inject a sense of urgency that can lead to too-rapid planning. What Five Colleges is able to do has been under construction since 1914. If you need quick action, start with small-scale or pilot programs to test the waters and build relationships, and give them time to find their footing before putting them in the spotlight. Collaborating in small ways helps teams gain experience in working across campus cultures and protocols, and it allows participants to work out the kinks before launching major programs.
Nurture opportunities for innovation at all levels. Although the motivation for cross-institution collaboration may begin with campus leadership, find ways for front-line faculty and staff to identify opportunities for partnership. Our consortium offers small amounts of financing to encourage groups to host cross-campus events, for instance. New programs in the consortium often come from small cross-campus groups of faculty or staff who come together out of shared interests. These self-identified collaborators are often the ones who go on to become department chairs, center directors, and deans, setting up the culture of collaborative leadership for tomorrow.
Agree on principles before programs. Programs will need to evolve, and people will turn over. Surviving these changes will be more likely if there’s core agreement on and commitment to the why. What’s the underlying goal of partnership? Is cost savings the only driver? Some of our programs certainly save the campuses money — our shared software contracts, for example. But others enable the campuses to expand their offerings: Our Center for World Languages provides each campus access to some 40 additional languages beyond what they can offer individually.
Some of our programs support experimentation or expansion in cutting-edge areas. For nearly 20 years, we supported a consortiumwide film-studies major; that experience gave each campus time to build its own individual program, and the shared major is now being phased out in favor of stand-alone programs. And some of our programs make work in the region more appealing, whether it’s our spousal-hire initiative, the ability to welcome new faculty to a larger community of peers than they would find at an isolated institution, or our efforts diversifying the teacher workforce with local elementary and secondary schools. Savings and efficiencies are nice, but expansion, experimentation, and equity can all be valuable goals as well. It’s important, too, to talk about what aspects of campus operations should be off the table. For example, Five Colleges steers clear of alumni relations.
Be prepared to invest in success. Collaborations are not a cure-all, and good collaborations don’t come cheaply. The necessary investments aren’t only in cash. At Five Colleges, the heads of the five institutions serve as the Board of Directors, and their leadership and commitment matter. Their provosts and chief financial officers also meet frequently and guide the overall shape of the consortium’s portfolio. We have a relatively large staff of more than 40, but some consortia have a single staff member. Regardless of how many full-time employees you can afford, it’s important to have dedicated staff dealing with the day-to-day work, who can make collaboration their priority as no one on the campuses can.
Collaboration, as a predecessor of mine at Five Colleges was fond of saying, is an unnatural act. It requires continually renewed commitment and attention and is not a quick fix for anything that ails individual institutions or higher education broadly. But cooperative work toward a brighter shared future is worth some effort, and newcomers are welcome.