Selective residential colleges and universities usually have several things in common – they are usually small, usually survive upon tuition, room, and board for their operating budgets, and are usually very, very expensive to attend.
And in case you haven’t been on the web or read a newspaper for the last few years, their business model is under more scrutiny – and attack – than any time in recent memory.
An idea, with no small amount of currency, is that small colleges can survive and thrive by leveraging their academic consortial partners, to take advantage of commonalities in their Enterprise Resource Planning and Learning Management Systems, as well as consolidating purchasing power for software, equipment, and subscriptions.
In theory, this is a great idea. Power in Numbers. Stronger than the sum of our parts. E Pluribus Unum.
In practice – not so much. At least, not how matters stand today.
The practical considerations of working with one or more consortial partners are many – how to build relationship and trust across institutions, how to maintain continuity and consistency of communications for long running programming, how to fund initiatives, how to assess and communicate fairly – and honestly – the success and / or failures of programs oft championed by College Presidents, but largely invisible to faculty and staff.
But the biggest chink in the armor in getting consortium-wide initiatives on their feet, is that they are totally dependent upon missionaries, individuals with a self-sustaining and self-motivated desire to see any one program succeed, in order to work.
For a time, these programs can – and do – work. That is, until the missionaries retire, die, or move on to the next mission field.
Consortial initiatives ultimately fail, because they do not deal systemically with supporting programming, in order to insure sustainable success.
There are clear models of where consolidation, collaboration, and aggregation do work in Higher Education. They are called state systems and community college systems, and they have well-proven models of multisite governance, oversight and accountability.
Selective, residential colleges can’t seemingly make this quantum leap to pool their resources in this fashion. Tradition, trustees, pride, alumni, and just – well – plain ‘ol stubbornness won’t allow it to happen.
Unless and until there is no other way to survive.
Without introducing sweeping governance changes, honest accountability, and real incentives to promote consortial activities systematically – the idea that consortial collaboration will ever drive sustainable programming and revenue (or, dare to dream, tuition savings) is a mission field too far.