Universities and colleges are frequently (and accurately) accused of living in silos. From external accusations of ivory tower thinking to internal challenges to interdisciplinary or cross-divisional collaboration, we struggle to move ideas forward with any kind of unity of purpose. Even as we work together to agree on missions, visions, values, and strategic plans, the coordination of efforts can be elusive. There are good reasons for this: We are a culture of experts.
To start, every single faculty member is an expert in their discipline. Our doctoral degrees and their equivalents (MFAs, for example) are designed to build a depth of knowledge that no one without that advanced educational experience can possess. That depth of knowledge helps us see the world through our disciplinary lenses and forms the basis for how degrees are organized. At the same time, each of us engaged our discipline from the perspectives of our graduate institutions, and ultimately from the perspective we developed in our dissertations. These differences in perspectives can be wonderful, opening the door to research collaborations or exposing our students to deep debates in the field. They can also be the source of petty feuds.
We do honor some parallel experiences in professional fields because they are meaningful and often beneficial. We may recruit a successful artist, journalist, or nurse practitioner without a doctoral degree because we are committed to connecting what we teach to the world beyond the academy. Enriching our faculty in this way can lead to new approaches to teaching, new connections with the external community, and an increased sense of relevance in the material for our students. It can also be a source of disagreement about meaningful research or other university expectations that are largely defined by folks who have gone the academic rather than professional route to teaching. In other words, even within departments with shared expertise, there are real differences in ideas about what is important.
Universities are also made up of experts in student affairs. Leadership in these areas have advanced degrees from a variety of fields. Whether they focused on advising practices, socio-emotional development of students, approaches to academic support, or fostering student engagement, each one brings specialized knowledge and expertise to their areas. Just like faculty, student affairs personnel attend conferences to learn about emerging trends and interesting innovations. Their knowledge is an important part of student success at a university. Whether connecting students to the help they need at any point in their undergraduate or graduate experience, developing great activities and events to support a vibrate campus environment, or facilitating transitions into and out of the university, student affairs can be a wonderful partner to academic affairs. Or it could be left on its “side” of the university, without the opportunity to fully develop strategic priorities in partnership with academic affairs.
There are also professionals in admissions, registration, and financial aid. The specialized knowledge of this group is essential for the health of the university. They are charged with managing the intricacies of system, state, and federal regulations. They rely on input from academic and student affairs to maintain compliance with these regulations. They also identify local policy problems that trip up our students, keeping them from enrolling or graduating. This group has to keep a close eye on changes in academic programs in ways that faculty do not see. They are aware of internal logic problems (like inconsistent prerequisites) and external barriers to new programs like regulations about certificates vs. degrees. This group is incredibly important to the success of the university and can be a fount of information as we develop new programs, revise existing programs, or plan our student support strategies. Or they can be left out of the planning and asked to clean things up after the fact.
I could continue and remind everyone of the importance of the experts in facilities, information technology, human resources, and finance and administration, and so on. Every one of them matters in every decision we make. They need to be included in the development of strategic plans, to be sure, and they usually are. It is the coordination after the plan that is the rub.
The trouble with all the expertise is that it often keeps us from being good collaborators. To our credit, we are a culture with a penchant for individual initiative and problem solving. This inspires us to move forward on ideas that are immediately concerning or interesting, without looking at how it integrates with the whole. We tend to do our homework, planning from our specialized perspectives, which speaks well of our work-ethic. Unfortunately, it often leads to the duplication of efforts (at best) and undermining of efforts (at worst). It also tends to leave out important perspectives because, in our rush to solve a problem or move an interesting idea forward, we forget that our colleagues with complementary or just plain different expertise are there.
I love the diverse group of experts that shape universities. As provost, I am lucky to interact regularly with colleagues in every department and I learn from every single conversation. Over the years, I have tried to connect people across disciplines and divisions, with some successes. But it has not been enough. We are still operating in silos and they have outlived their usefulness.
There is plenty of evidence that supporting students requires collaboration across disciplines and divisions. From emergency funding to problematic course sequences to planning co-curricular activities, shared understandings, ideas, and interventions are the best way to create great educational experiences and improve outcomes. Sharing ideas and aligning strategies can help us avoid duplication of efforts and keep us from developing initiatives that end up cancelling each other out. It can also help us better understand how the ideas and expertise of our colleagues can inform and improve our own ideas and expertise. There is power in collaboration and coordination of efforts. It is time to re-imagine our processes so that the power of collaboration can be harnessed for a better future.