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Building Win-Win Academic Affairs Collaborations in Higher Education

Institutional Culture

Building Win-Win Academic Affairs Collaborations in Higher Education

Higher education is experiencing a rapidly changing and challenging environment. To succeed in better enabling necessary institutional and marketplace changes as well as creating maximum student learning opportunities, today’s academic leaders must look beyond old paradigms of success in higher education. Today’s academic leader must truly understand and act upon the wisdom of “It takes a village to raise a child” and educate a modern-day, more diverse, technologically driven, and mediated-existence-driven student.

One of the first steps a leader must take is to survey and understand the environment in which learning is taking place and how new trends are affecting and accelerating that learning. Reading Thomas Friedman’s book, Thank You for Being Late (2016), will give one a sense of the changes that are rapidly occurring across the world and some positive responses to those changes that an academic leader must reflect on. One key message of the book is that without more reflection and new, better-informed, and collaborative actions, the world will become more dangerous and more isolating due to technological change, globalization, and climate change. He stresses the importance of building and sustaining community and shared values as essential to a better outcome for individuals and societies as they ride the whitewater in leaking boats limited by past beliefs and past history.

In the world of higher education, one needs to ponder the new realities of the shared raft that all administrators are riding on through turbulent rivers of change, both positive and negative. The challenge of diversity affects enrollment managers, student affairs professionals, public relations officers, fundraisers, presidents, and academic affairs leaders. Similarly, the challenges of future enrollments and shrinking financial support from state and federal government as well as exploding student debt levels put institutional viability for many institutions at risk. And the intolerance of students toward other students’ and speakers’ supporting points of view that are not valued in a campus community places academic expression and learning from difference and confrontation of ideas at risk.

Finally, the rapidity of change in employment markets and preferences of employers for meeting global competition challenge higher education to teach differently, teach different subjects, collaborate more with businesses and nonprofits, and accelerate student learning to graduation. All these challenges and more demand academic leaders cultivate and build alliances with other administrators on their president’s or chancellor’s team as well as increase student learning outside of the classroom as the norm for better educating students for the 21st century.

Why are all administrators and units of higher education to be recruited and developed into one team supporting student learning? One reason is purely financial. As nonfaculty employment has dramatically increased and adjunct faculty now are playing an ever-larger role in teaching students, there is not enough money to share among all the administrative units of higher education and to satisfy a progressively avaricious academic agenda of expanding coursework and learning opportunities. Another factor is the budget process, where the rise of the chief financial officer, institutional advancement officer, student development officer, marketing/public relations office, and presidents and chancellors all vie for better financing of their units’ goals and objectives as central to institutional viability. A third factor is that more diverse students and employment markets that are not as kind to students in terms of entering the middle class are demanding strategies for students’ postcollege success and upward mobility. Finally, the public, which has less money available due to stagnant wages and the Great Recession’s impact on home equity, are demanding a better return on investment for their sacrifices in supporting their children’s college education. Undoubtedly there are other factors pointing in the same direction, which is that colleges and universities must better assure students, families, businesses, and governments that colleges and universities are truly both necessary and efficient vehicles for ensuring upward mobility in society.

Given the many reasons for increased collaboration, cooperation, and alliance building, how does a committed academic leader go from academic affairs isolationism and preferences to being a stronger student and socially responsive agent for change and accountability? First, one must learn to listen and be visibly present for others. This means one will have to encourage all key academic administrators to increase their visibility and engagement with other members from different units in the management and life of the college or university.

Beyond public engagement and presence in valued events on campus, the academic leader must encourage personal relationships and sharing across the campus. Academics need to have lunch, dinner, and breakfast meetings characterized by nondirected and nonstaged conversations. These interpersonal, focused conversations are necessary to build trust and understanding. And most important, they are necessary both to discover and share opportunities for improved relationships and outcomes for the units, the institution, and student learning that are not as easy to discover during formal planning meetings or the challenges of the annual budgeting process.

Another important strategy in developing win-win collaborations is to have key academic leaders ask for recommendations of reading materials from their colleagues in nonacademic disciplines. Much can be learned from the research and discussions of what is important to professionals in other units from reading about the models, theories, and concerns expressed in highly valued professional literature.

A fourth critical strategy in building a wider academic affairs coalition for student success is to create business, community, and nonprofit advisory boards to engage with academic affairs professionals on a regular and systematic basis. These alliances will be necessary to discover changes that are rapidly occurring in employment markets and opportunities for internships and field learning. They will also build credibility with external employers and communities for the vital contributions students can make due to their academic programs and the values they are developing by being graduates of rigorous, diverse, and intellectually and morally engaged learning communities.

The critical alliance is with student development professionals. They are at the cutting edge of what is happening relative to student mental health challenges, inadequate high school preparation in writing and mathematics, changes in communications due to technology, challenges of isolation and differences, and anxieties about postgraduation employment and student debt repayment. Without understanding these emotional, moral, and persistent problems plaguing most students in higher education today, academic leaders will fall into the trap of development and experience to always believe and value cognitive learning over all other forms of student learning. And in doing so, they will underestimate what can and must be learned outside of the classroom environment from other students, sports, community engagements, internships, field experiences, and study abroad. Much as solid family upbringing depends often on a stable family environment, so too sustainable and high-quality learning depends on mentors in academic affairs as well as in student affairs and athletic departments.

If one actively builds the wider academic alliance, many good things will happen. Enrollment management will become easier as retention increases from students’ bonding with multiple people inside and outside the institution. Fundraising will become easier and more successful as people outside of the institution, through word of mouth and financial giving, become advocates and messengers of the institution. Increased collaboration between all units of the institution will help everyone better manage tight budgets and allocate dollars with better prospects for greater returns on investment. The integrity of the promise of upward mobility will be easier to achieve as the whole college or university community becomes more fully engaged in the success of each of its graduates from the time of enrollment to their success as alumni/ae. And most of all, the learning that does occur inside and outside of the classroom will be a better fit to the moral, economic, and personal challenges that each graduate will face in the global economy.


Henry W. Smorynski, PhD, is a Midland University leadership fellow.



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