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Cross-College Collaboration

 January 10, 2014
By Megan Rogers
Inside Higher Ed

Faced with increasingly tight budgets, liberal arts colleges are looking to share resources to reduce costs and expand programs. But when the end goal is collaboration and not a merger, how should administrators decide which services are appropriate to share?

St. Olaf and Carleton Colleges, both liberal arts colleges in Northfield, Minn., have received a $1.4 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to increase collaboration over the next four years, but are drawing the line at sharing career services departments. And it’s hard to imagine the colleges collaborating in areas where they are competitors, such as fund-raising or admissions, St. Olaf President David Anderson said.

But a more advanced library management system for the two libraries, shared help-desk services and the possibility of increased cross-registration for students are fair game for collaboration. The colleges have partnered formally and informally in the past (most notably sharing library services), and the Mellon grant -- one of a series the foundation is providing -- will help them broaden their collaboration. The four-year project focuses on updating the library management system, sharing library staff and creating a single research portal for students of both colleges.

The grant will also be used to lay the foundation for academic collaboration among faculty members. Smaller grants will be awarded to faculty teams exploring how courses and programs can be made accessible to students at both campuses, discussing curriculums and considering how to align course prerequisites in order to facilitate cross-registration or working to collaborate on research seminars or civic engagement projects in the local community. The political science departments have discussed teaching a course at night to draw students from both campuses, Carleton President Steven Poskanzer said. The colleges may allow education students to take courses necessary for certification at either campus.

The colleges will also decide whether to share information technology infrastructure, help desk services and even staff. The grant proposal mentions sharing a technology security adviser. Lastly, the colleges will consider pooling together for a two-college health care plan.

Decisions to collaborate are based on two criteria, Anderson said. Would collaborating be efficient and save costs, or would it improve current programs or enable new offerings?

Within the past year, Mellon awarded $75,000 planning grants to Sweet Briar College to partner with Hollins University (both women’s colleges based in Virginia) and Wofford College to team with Converse College (both of which are based in Spartanburg, S.C.).

Because the three pairs of colleges are geographically close, there have been informal collaborations for years. The partnership between the libraries at St. Olaf and Carleton colleges began in 2003, and Wofford and Converse have offered academic cross-registration for years.

But the foundation wants to make collaboration more intentional and purposeful, said Eugene Tobin, program officer for the Higher Education and the Liberal Arts Colleges Program at the Mellon Foundation.

Sweet Briar and Hollins are studying the possibility of collaborating on international education and study abroad programs, as well as operational functions. The colleges will assess the results of the planning in the new year, Sweet Briar College President Jo Ellen Parker wrote in an email.

Like the two Minnesota colleges, the South Carolina colleges chose libraries as a “common denominator” for formal collaboration, Wofford College Dean David Wood said. The colleges will embark on an 18-month planning period beginning next year. “The end result of some of this will be reduced expenditures and better service at lower cost,” he said.

Collaboration between departments and faculty members is the “future for the financial equilibrium of liberal arts,” Tobin said.

It’s a “common-sense observation that given the financial pressures, it probably doesn’t make sense for us to have two of everything,” Anderson said. Poskanzer said the cost-savings will come later in the process, as the colleges first focus on building trust and a culture of collaboration.