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How collaboration is supposed to work

Effective change requires collective action

By Adrianna Kezar

I recently spoke to Janice, a long-time staffer at Campus Compact, a higher education organization that promotes campus-based civic engagement. She had just attended a summit on improving access and completion for foster care youth, and she couldn’t help thinking about how different the meeting had felt.

Too often, Janice left meetings hopeful, but knowing there was a key area missing. But this time, she felt elated and re-energized. She was ready to get to work.

She said that the main difference this time was that she and the other stakeholders—including business leaders, community groups, state and local politicians and higher education leaders—had worked together to identify how they could best support their strategy.

This was how collaboration was supposed to work, she said.

The future landscape of education will depend on many more alliances and coalitions than in the past, which in turn will lead, I believe, to more enlightened reform processes. And at scale.

I have noticed that many of the most recent changes in higher education have emerged from groups banding together in networks (such as Campus Compact), coalitions (Complete College America) or alliances (Bay View Alliance). In fact, several major funding organizations, including Lumina and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations, have invested in networks as a primary part of their change strategies to improve student success, particularly for low-income, first-generation and underserved students. Just as we are demanding our students do group projects, we have to embrace the benefits of getting out of our silos and working together for change.

Allied action often draws on broader expertise than earlier change efforts, bringing multiple forms of influence while maximizing strengths across organizations. As Janice observed, Campus Compact drew on community agencies for their resources and expertise around social supports for foster care youth; business organizations for employment to support students so they can stay in college; and government agencies to provide oversight and coordination. Meanwhile, Campus Compact provided its expertise around community engagement and the college environment.

But such collaborative efforts, while very effective, are extremely difficult to implement given past habits, including inter-organization competition. Yet, emerging research is showing how a “backbone” organization can orchestrate work, create and monitor shared goals through shared measurements, create mutual reinforcing activities, provide governance for the group and build relationships and trust.

As we look to education in the next century, we need to answer the call for the kinds of bigger and bolder collective efforts that foundations and government agencies are calling for. This means, as a school of education, we need to develop our own skills in supporting faculty collaboration with their own colleagues in the school, in other disciplines as well as beyond the borders of campus. Furthermore, school and college leaders need to branch out more to join such collective efforts. Principals need to be thinking about their individual efforts to reform a school to be part of a network or community of schools learning and working together to change the school culture to better support student success.

We need to train school leaders to be much more aware of the need and value of working collectively. And we will all be the better for it.

Adrianna Kezar is USC Rossier Dean’s Professor in Higher Education Leadership and Co-Director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education. She also directs the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success.