More college and university campuses are placing an emphasis on achieving excellence by implementing initiatives to strengthen diversity, equity, inclusion, and global engagement. These efforts often require doing more in an era when financial resources are limited. In such an environment, university leaders need to be more efficient. One of the best approaches for complex organizations is to identify ways to work collaboratively across the institution rather than view efforts as competing. This strategy, however, is not easy because it requires dismantling the organizational silos that have become commonplace in American higher education.
One important opportunity for collaboration is the partnership between academic affairs and student affairs, which remains an elusive goal for many institutions despite several decades of calls to action from national associations and higher education leaders. Differences in focus between intellectual and psychosocial development, the divide between in-class and out-of-class learning, competition for students’ time and attention, and compartmentalization of student success are just a few of the challenges that separate these two important areas on a college campus.
These differences can often seem insurmountable; the competition for resources can be fierce, and examples of effective collaboration often seem limited to specific programs or small-scale projects. But some campuses have found pathways for effective partnerships that advance targeted institutional priorities across campus, perhaps offering a model for more collaboration in other areas as well. The most obvious example is the joint work required to enact high-impact practices such as residential learning communities, service-learning courses, internships, and first-year experiences. The structures that lead to success in these areas can often be employed in pursuit of other institutional goals.
Another opportunity for collaboration comes with bridging the divide that often occurs on campuses between diversity and inclusion efforts and those involving internationalization and global engagement. The American Council on Education’s (ACE) 2007 report titled At Home in the World: Bridging the Gap Between Internationalization and Multicultural Education provides some provocative reasons why multiculturalism and internationalization are often seen as disparate efforts on a college campus. Often, these foci come from different disciplinary traditions, and those leading these efforts typically report to different divisions. ACE calls for higher education institutions to “understand the intersection between multicultural education and internationalization” and “commit to advancing the strategies for collaboration springing from this common ground.”
So why is the common ground among student affairs and academics as well as international and multicultural efforts not providing that springboard? On a practical level, practitioners from different on-campus areas seldom sit down together to discuss common teaching and research interests. On an intellectual level, this lack of engagement and collaboration across divisions often manifests itself as a lack of understanding of the issues raised by the “other” side and a failure to see the connections between all of these efforts.
During a meeting on our own campus among offices and centers that focus on inclusion, global education, and service-learning, colleagues noticed how conversations within their areas about intercultural competencies included different terms and approaches but were often in pursuit of the same broad goals. And yet those offices carried out their functions in isolation, missing the opportunity to make connections across their shared work. The work to bring these units together is ongoing and will require sustained dialogue and focus, but already, new programmatic collaborations have occurred.
On some campuses, faculty who concentrate on race and ethnicity through the curriculum in their academic disciplines may never engage in a conversation or in collaboration with student affairs professionals who are creating co-curricular education around the same construct. This intellectual isolationism reflects the traditional, disciplinary-based academic silos that emphasize specialization rather than integration at a time when most campuses are trying to help students integrate their experiences and transfer learning across different contexts.
Breaking out of this silo thinking — student life versus academics or multiculturalism versus internationalization — provides opportunities for connection and collaboration that will strengthen institutional effectiveness. A focus on speech and civic engagement; bridging political divides; and the significance of religion, worldview diversity, and interfaith understanding provides more opportunities to deepen students’ learning and help them navigate and better understand diverse perspectives. All too often, these conversations are not happening across units and divisions.
Breaking out of this silo thinking … provides opportunities for connection and collaboration that will strengthen institutional effectiveness.
During our own visits to other campuses as consultants, we have repeatedly witnessed people with shared goals around inclusion connecting with each other for the first time during our meetings. In those sessions, participants exchange information, discuss how they should be working together more often, and pledge to do so. If they did work together as promised, we suspect it would lead to more authentic, collaborative, and effective efforts the following year.
Higher education leaders can and should do better if they want to make meaningful and sustainable changes on their campuses. From our own experiences as collaborators, there are some important factors to consider for bridging these divides.
Institutional commitment. For effective collaboration to occur at multiple levels of an institution and across all units, schools, and divisions, a commitment to integrative work and learning must be made at the senior-most levels.
If senior leaders operate as a team and expect the same of others, they foster a culture of collaboration that permeates the organization. Senior leaders must talk often about the importance of integrative, collaborative efforts and demonstrate their commitment to this work through their actions. Not all campuses have this commitment at the senior level, and if yours is one that does not, others in the organization may still be able to effectively guide these efforts on a more limited scale.
Organizational structure. While relationships matter, they are not always enough to break strong silos that have been established. Structures that transcend traditional organizational boundaries are important, including centers, councils, task forces, committees, and working groups that have the authority and resources to advance important institutional priorities. Wherever possible, these structures should be jointly led by individuals from different units of the institution. Even within traditional organizational structures, collaboration can be fostered among people and departments across campus.
From our own experiences with dual supervision, dotted-line reporting relationships, and co-leading councils and initiatives, we have witnessed firsthand how these approaches foster creativity, shared commitment, integration, and collaboration. Our inclusion work is better when we bring together human resources, alumni relations, admissions, academic affairs, student life, and all the identity and diversity centers and offices once a month to discuss strategy.
Engagement and understanding. Working across different cultures and perspectives takes time, patience, and commitment. One of us came into our current role through a pathway as a full-time faculty member, and the other as a full-time student affairs educator. Even in our shared daily work, we find ourselves translating the concepts and jargon of our own areas of expertise to each other; navigating and negotiating different perspectives, lenses, and frameworks; and unlearning decades of myths and misconceptions.
Managing roadblocks and barriers in order to work collaboratively across university silos is not easy and requires a commitment over the long haul. Effective relationships will inevitably require resolving disagreements and misunderstandings to truly benefit from the unique roles and perspectives that different individuals bring to the table.
Each of these considerations requires time and investment, and there will be moments when it may seem easier to keep doing things the way they have always been done. Undoubtedly, there will be bumps along the road. In the end, however, effective integration and collaboration is a strategy worth committing to because it will foster organizational and individual excellence in a diverse environment that honors and values the unique perspectives and contributions of multiple individuals.●
Brooke Barnett, PhD, is the associate provost for academic and inclusive excellence at Elon University. She is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board. Jon Dooley, PhD, is the vice president for student life at Elon University.