John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Silos: A Must for Farmers, a Negative for Campuses

October 15, 2014John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

It is almost inevitable that when I find myself in conversation with other higher educators about what are the major obstacles to student success on their campuses, the word “silo” comes up as a noun, or in verb form as “siloed.” And it is a lament. The refrain goes something like: “Oh we could get so much more done for our students if we weren’t so “siloed.” This blog posting is not going to be a treatise about what causes this organizational reality, but rather a much briefer statement about it including something I am trying to do about it.

Recently, I attended the national roll out event in Washington, DC, for the University Innovation Alliance, a national consortium of eleven research universities, which have received support from six foundations to work together to improve the success rates for underrepresented poor and minority students. How are they going to do this? Many approaches really, individually on each campus but collectively through one primary strategy: collaboration.

Ah, collaboration, so important, but so difficult to do. Many of us, especially our leaders, don’t do this naturally. We would rather compete. Competition is so American it’s next to godliness. So talking about serious collaboration is almost a heresy. We will see then how this plays out in what will be this well funded case study in cross institutional collaboration. Personally, I am impressed by this effort and am glad to see it taking place. And I hope I can help in some small ways to support this work.

Collaboration has been an essential theme of my work since the early 1970’s.  I would argue that everything I have accomplished of any significance I achieved through collaboration, and hence jointly, in a shared and not individual manner.

  • The University 101 program which I directed at the University of South Carolina for twenty-five years is the archetypal partnership program between central academic administration, Student Affairs, faculty and student leaders.
  • The Conferences on the First-Year Experience, and Students in Transition, for 35 years have been organized around bringing the constituencies of academic and student affairs administrators, and faculty from all types of institutions together for sharing of information and inspiration and collaborative activities.
  • The conference, strategic planning, and consulting work I have been engaged in has also been based on collaboration between American higher educators like myself and fellow higher educators from around the globe.
  • By far the majority of books, articles and other publications I have authored have been co-authored with others. I have a powerful preference for working with others as opposed to myself alone.
  •  The non-profit organization I helped found and which is named for me now fifteen years old offers multiple services and processes to improve undergraduate success through mechanisms involving partnerships and collaborations.

One of these activities is a continuation of two previous national meetings we have hosted into what will now be our third Academic and Student Affairs Leaders’ Institute: Partnerships for Promising Practices in Student Success, January 15-16, 2015, in Costa Mesa, CA. The two prior gatherings involved approximately 400 higher educators coming in teams from 100 institutions. The first meeting produced a manifesto of sorts on the nature of collaboration: Seven Principles of Good Practice for Student Success Partnerships.

I commend both the upcoming meeting and the Seven Principles for your consideration. We all need to do what we can to break down our respective campus silos to better serve our students, and in the course of that will find that we will better serve our own units and ourselves.

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