Cross-Institutional Collaboration: Niche or Trend?

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Each year the EDUCAUSE membership selects the top 10 IT issues from a slate of 15–20 issues identified by the IT Issues Panel, a group of about two dozen IT leaders from a representative range of U.S. and international member institutions. An annual article discusses the top 10 in detail. But let's consider one of the issues on the slate that did not make the list this year: IT Partnerships: Developing partnerships for sharing IT services, platforms, and resources across a campus or with multiple institutions.

Higher education faces a fundamental dilemma: We need more from our IT investments and yet have little more to invest. Two of the issues that did make the list reflect this predicament:

  • Sustainable Funding: Developing IT funding models that sustain core services, support innovation, and facilitate growth (issue #5)
  • Higher Education Affordability: Prioritizing IT investments and resources in the context of increasing demand and limited resources (issue #7)

What can we do? We need new models to replace the current practice of campus-based service delivery and reduce the costs of commodity services to shift investments to strategic, mission-based priorities like student success. Just as many question why each institution offers it own 101 series of courses, so many also question why each institution has its own instance of payroll, HR, and other enterprise systems. Partnerships, shared services, and consolidating commodity services have been espoused, but actual adoption rates belie the enthusiasm. No type of institution rated IT partnerships among its top 10 IT issues.

Is cross-institutional collaboration yet to be, or not to be? Several formidable factors inhibit collaboration today. They include uneven enthusiasm within an institution: the CIO may see the opportunity, but the CBO or CAO may dispute it. Timing is often the silent killer of potential partnerships: institutions that have just implemented an enterprise system don't feel able to invest again soon, and those that are not yet ready can't be rushed. And the multitude of necessary compromises and accommodations for cross-institutional solutions can thwart the ready and the willing.

And yet the past is not the best way to predict the future. Shared services are taking hold within public higher education systems, which have some preexisting shared governance structures and accountabilities to build from. A shared vision can seed cross-institutional collaboration. Unizin, a new effort by many of the same institutions that founded Sakai and Kuali, was established in 2014 and now includes 11 universities and a system. It is described by Donalee Attardo at the University of Minnesota as "an educated leap of faith into what the higher education environment will become in the future" and by Maggie Jesse at the University of Iowa as "a consortium of like-minded institutions that are all trying to transform the digital learning ecosystem in the same ways together." Will Unizin prove to be a harbinger of broader and more significant collaborations or stay confined to a few committed institutions? Time will tell, but the participants are hopeful and committed.

Susan Grajek is Vice President of Communities and Research for EDUCAUSE.

© 2017 Susan Grajek. This EDUCAUSE Review blog is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0.