Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Engaged Partnership

Partnerships are critical to the success of any modern organization. Partners may provide certain services better and less expensively than you can manage within your own organization. Partners may also provide critical collaboration on important projects, blending their expertise with your own, to support more nimble and higher quality development.

Branch campuses absolutely need reliable partners. Internally, campuses can partner in all sorts of interesting ways, but the most critical partners probably are main campus academic units. These often-difficult relationships can work much better if the campus and the academic unit think of each other as partners.

I was fortunate to carry the title of vice president for over eight years, and I realize that position provided access and encouraged cooperation in a way that titles like campus dean or executive director may not. Regardless, I maintained that our branches would partner with any academic program, assuming we had an audience for the program, and we worked hard to meet the expectations of our partners. On the other hand, we would walk away from the table, if we were treated as if we were only a location or a service provider. (I don’t mean that we jumped up and stomped out of rooms, but that we would let the conversation rest until the other side showed more willingness to acknowledge our contributions and interests.)

My point was that branch campuses bring something important to the table and deserve to be respected as partners of the academic unit. Branch campus leaders have knowledge of the local market and how that market can most effectively be reached, as just one important example. Given escalating competition, branch campuses also should bring a level of targeted services and technical support that contributes to long-term enrollment success.

Branches also need external partners, in my opinion. I object to labeling certain contracts “vendor relationships,” when I believe they should run deeper than that. For example, in Ohio University’s distance learning programs, we established strong ties with certain companies that could bring marketing knowledge or excellent course design skills to the table. At the time, we could not create these services at the level of excellence we believed necessary, and by creating a financial partnership, instead of a typical vendor relationship, we set an expectation for collaboration that led to considerable success. I recognize that some administrators do not agree with this point of view, but I stand my ground.

Finally, I think branch campuses need external academic partners, as well. I am proud of the Community College Partnership program we built in my last few years, although that work did not directly involve our regional campuses. (I think it will, eventually, but that isn’t up to me.) We set a goal to become a “preferred partner” of certain community colleges, by engaging more deeply than simply creating articulation agreements, and it has paid off in significant, rapid enrollment growth. To my mind, the key was coming to the table as colleagues, something a lot of universities fail to do, according to community college leaders with whom we worked.

I encourage you to be thoughtful about partnerships. Choose them carefully, but also consider what it means to be a real partner and why it matters. Engaged partnerships bring substantial opportunity, but develop them selectively and strategically.