Being Intentionally Collaborative: Making the First Move
In a recent job interview for an associate vice president position, a prospective candidate was asked if they had any questions for the search committee. The person asked, “Is this a collaborative environment?” After a pregnant pause that seemed to give birth to triplets, the general response was that the members of the group in that room, all falling somewhere in the middle of the organizational chart, were definitely collaborative among each other, but not so much when moving vertically through the institution’s hierarchy. As one person remarked, “Put us all in a room together and we work well, but with those above us? Well . . .” As the sentence trailed off, the candidate emphasized that they were collaborative, which they had to say, as the alternative would have guaranteed an immediate “vote off the island.” But it was a telling assessment of both the concept of collaboration and its application in our world of academic leadership.
Merriam-Webster notes three different definitions of the word collaborate:
- to work jointly with others or together especially in an intellectual endeavor
- to cooperate with or willingly assist an enemy of one’s country and especially an occupying force suspected of collaborating with the enemy
- to cooperate with an agency or instrumentality with which one is not immediately connected
While one may be tempted to use the second definition in these times of budget decisions and departmental cuts, leaving the definition of who the enemy is as an exercise for the reader, the other two definitions have elements that are applicable in this narrative. The search committee consisted of individuals for different areas of the university who would normally not work together (“not immediately connected”) but were brought together to complete the task (“an intellectual endeavor”) of recommending a candidate for a position (“cooperate” and “work jointly”). They literally were put in a room together, and as one of those participants, it was both a productive and enjoyable experience.
This was a collaborative process: a specific assignment that by its definition calls for a diverse representation from all corners of an institution; in this case, it resulted in a cooperative effort that yielded the best candidate for the job (something that is not always true for every search committee). But are we intentionally collaborative as academic leaders? We may work and play well with others, but do we take that extra step to be the first out of the gate to be inclusive? Do we call on others outside of our areas on a regular basis, or do we just work together when placed on a committee or task force? We offer courses that are interdisciplinary; why can’t our problem-solving be the same? We create councils and Blue Ribbon structures for large projects that require cross-campus participation, but do we actively seek out advice from our coworkers when an issue of lesser depth and breadth arises? No article on higher education is complete without using the word “silos,” but this visual upends that word: imagine the traditional silos of higher education pushed over on their sides, creating cylindrical channels of communication, connecting diverse areas of a campus in a true spirit of cooperation.
As academic leaders, we must be the first hands on those silos doing the pushing, as collaboration does not just “automagically” happen. There needs to be a true intention to work together; we must make the first move, proactively connecting the dots throughout the organizational chart both horizontally and vertically. For example, when we make connections between Academic Affairs and Student Affairs, we create an atmosphere where student learning is nurtured, valued, and promoted in all aspects of student life. In the book The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most, the authors note the added benefit of this relationship, stating: “Effective provosts and CAOs also find ways to partner with their colleagues in student life to create institutional environments that help students foster connection between in-and-out-of-classroom learning. Institutions that consistently focus on best practices in undergraduate education find effective strategies to bridge academic affairs and student life operations in a thoughtful and seamless manner.” (Felten et al., 2016, 152).
If we truly believe in the concept of lifelong education, we have much to learn from everyone at a college or university. In his installation speech as chancellor of Trent University, Don Tapscott spoke about a changing model for learning. He stated, “Collaboration is important not just because it’s a better way to learn. The spirit of collaboration is penetrating every institution and all of our lives. So learning to collaborate is part of equipping yourself for effectiveness, problem-solving, innovation and life-long learning in an ever-changing networked economy.”
We often hear that concepts such as “student success” and “enrollment management” are everybody’s business. We naturally include students, faculty, cabinet members, and mid- to upper-level staff in the conversation. What would we learn from a department secretary about these topics? Have they ever been part of the conversation? Ever wonder what the guard at the front gate thinks about these issues? And should we value their input any less than the opinion of the associate vice president we just hired?
“Collaborate.” Merriam-Webster.com. Accessed December 12, 2017. www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/collaborate.
Felten, Peter, John N. Gardner, Charles C. Schroeder, Leo M. Lambert, and Betsy O. Barefoot. 2016. The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Tapscott, Don. 2013. “The Spirit of Collaboration Is Touching All of Our Lives.” The Globe and Mail, June 7. Accessed June 7, 2013. www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/the-spirit-of-collaboration-is-touching-all-of-our-lives/article12409331/
Richard L. Riccardi is senior associate provost and dean of libraries at Rider University. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.