In the wake of the Super Bowl, an annual ritual celebrating athletic prowess, I’ve been reflecting on the role of competition in our colleges and universities. While we can all revel in the glitz and glory of the Big Game, competition also has its limits as a model for education. When we accept a winner-takes-all mentality as a model for higher education, we ignore the important fact that it is not a zero-sum game. Many institutions of higher education are inspired by this model of athletic competition at the intercollegiate level, and are also driven by its dictates off the field. They often talk a good game about collaboration, instead of actually implementing it.
I am more convinced than ever that collaboration across institutional and disciplinary boundaries–not competition–is the path forward for our success. There is no need for us to reinvent the wheel. Scientific research is founded on collaboration, and we can learn much from this model to facilitate both intra- and inter- institutional collaboration.
To accomplish this, we must first place more emphasis on teaching students rather than teaching content. What good is disciplinary content without also including the communication and articulation of the major questions that go to the heart of intellectual development? For example, to foster intra-institutional collaboration, there is an increased probability of students developing the vital critical thinking, reading, and writing skills to the extent that every faculty member, whether tenured or part-time, is also an active partner in teaching these skills.
Time and time again, research has shown that student retention and degree success is not a solo act, but rather the result of collaboration on many levels. For example, students in the foster care system graduate at a lower rate than other students. In general, this is true for students of many historically disenfranchised groups. What is needed is a synergy fueled by collaboration across disciplines to ensure student success. We have several tried and tested examples to prove the effectiveness of collaborating for success. There is no need to go back to the drawing board, nor should we lower expectations for academic excellence.
When it comes to excellence in teaching historically disenfranchised students, we know that one dedicated teacher can inspire collaboration across the board. One such example is Uri Tressman, who received an interdisciplinary PhD in mathematics and education from the University of California at Berkeley. A lifelong advocate of equity and excellence in education, he successfully taught advanced mathematics to minority students in underserved communities. In fact, his students tested so well that many doubters thought those students had cheated! For his research on the factors that support high achievement among minority students in mathematics, Uri has received national recognition, including being named a MacArthur “genius” award winner and one of the outstanding leaders in higher education in the 20th century by Black Issues in Higher Education.
Another example of intra-institutional collaboration is the redesign of introductory courses to encompass an interdisciplinary focus at the University of California, San Francisco, and at Xavier University, an HBCU in New Orleans. In writing, critical thinking, quantitative and math skills, and the STEM disciplines, there is much we can learn from exemplary programs that span traditional boundaries. Beyond the classroom, in fundraising, for example, Claflin University has shown that a relatively low-wealth institution can engage its alumni to such an extent that it now has among the highest of alumni giving rates of all American colleges and is number one among HBCUs. By the way, this is the kind of “competition” from which we can all benefit because we learn best practices for alumni engagement, institutional sustainability, and responsiveness to those we serve.
In regards to inter-institutional collaboration, there are a myriad of possibilities for collaboration. In faculty development, not every institution needs its own program, and a consortium approach is an opportunity waiting to be seized on in a significant and sustainable way. Not every higher education needs a criminal justice program, or a health sciences program. We could greatly increase degree attainment through inter-institutional collaboration. This way, students could have access to the courses they need when they need them, whether at other institutions or online, not merely when their particular institution finds it convenient to offer them.
As a former university CEO at both PWIs and an HBCU, I call upon my fellow presidents, chancellors, and chief academic officers to take greater responsibility for increasing and enhancing inter- and intra- institutional collaboration. If we are truly serious about increasing student retention and degree attainment, especially for our historically disenfranchised students, we must do a better job of collaborating across institutional and disciplinary boundaries. We must place a much more emphasis on teaching students using all of the tools at our disposal, and decrease our dependence on a model of education centered on athletic competition.
Competition has its place, but collaboration is one of the most underutilized opportunities for institutional effectiveness and student success. Each institution of higher education should define incentives for implementing collaborative initiatives that transcend institutional and disciplinary boundaries. The greatest of these incentives, above all, should be student success. Our future as a nation depends on a partnership of equity and excellence, nurtured and fostered by collaboration.