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How Collaborating Across and Beyond the University Supports Relevance, Effectiveness and Efficiency

The EvoLLLution | How Collaborating Across and Beyond the University Supports Relevance, Effectiveness and Efficiency
With budgetary challenges always in mind, collaborations across the institution and with industry can help colleges and universities maximize resources while delivering programming that addresses skills gaps and supports long-term graduate success.
The University of Wisconsin-Stout is a regional comprehensive and polytechnic university, located in western Wisconsin about an hour east of the Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota.

UW-Stout has three key polytechnic tenets that guide its work, including one specifically focused on collaboration. At UW-Stout this tenet includes both internal and external collaboration. The need for collaboration has increased in prominence, as state budget reductions and tuition freezes have necessitated close reviews of budgets, with a focus on avoiding the duplication of services and expanding partnerships. In addition, the need for collaboration springs from disruptions affecting higher education as a result of the rapid growth of emerging technology.

Examples of collaborations are numerous at our polytechnic institution, which prioritizes student preparedness in an ever-changing professional landscape. One key example is our program advisory committees (PAC), which are required for each academic major. The PAC includes representation from business, industry, alumni and current students, and they meet every semester to discuss academic program continuous improvement (UW-Stout won the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in 2001, a program that focuses on continuous improvement). Another example is our industry partnerships to donate state-of-the-art equipment and/or instructional facilitation in areas of rapid industry changes. These collaborations include a partnership between Thomson Reuters and UW-Stout to develop a unique major in digital marketing technology. With support from Thompson Reuters, the university created this program to prepare students in this growing area of technology, and to provide employers with graduates who are ready to contribute to their organizations.

Over the past decade, there have been many other examples of successful cross-campus collaborations at UW-Stout. These include a merger of four colleges into three, with a focus on bringing departments together that had developed collaborations or had potential to develop collaborations. Another example is the merger of the graduate school and our distance education office (Stout Online), based on opportunities to streamline processes between these units.

Additional examples of collaboration include our BS in Computer Science-Game Design and Development and our BFA in Game Design and Development programs, where students and instructors across different departments share upper-division coursework. The courses feature designers and computer scientists working together to develop computer games. Faculty have received funding from the National Science Foundation to provide undergraduate students with interdisciplinary research opportunities related to watershed quality via the Linking Applied Knowledge in Environmental Stability (LAKES) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU). Over this last spring term, graduate students in the MFA in Design program worked with the LAKES researchers on developing an outdoor museum to educate local visitors about phosphorus pollution and blue-green algae blooms in Lake Menomin. There is also a close collaboration among faculty in Applied Social Science and Human Development and Family Studies in the development of a certificate that helps people prepare for a career in social work.

As a polytechnic institution, the university has an applied focus, which requires extensive laboratory, studio and other active workspaces (we have three times as many laboratories as traditional classrooms). Recent budget reductions eliminated a modest classroom improvement fund. There was concern about how this loss of funding would affect our ability to keep our laboratories and studios up-to-date. When additional funding became available, some of these dollars were allocated to classroom and laboratory improvement. Collaboration took center stage in the allocation of this funding. A committee consisting of academic deans, the director of Learning Information Technologies, the director of Facilities Management and the associate provost developed a cooperative process for reviewing project submissions. This has helped to ensure that the limited dollars available can have the maximum possible effect.

As shown by these examples, collaboration across departments and campus units has been a key element of how UW-Stout operates. It is worth exploring what campus structures and cultural attributes have contributed to this focus on collaboration, and what opportunities exist to further enhance our collaborative culture.

UW-Stout has a strong structure for ensuring shared governance. One element of this process is the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee, which includes members of the Chancellor’s cabinet and governance groups and provides an opportunity for collaborative discussion between units and divisions. A second element of this process is a Strategic Planning Group. This committee consists of administrators and members of governance groups, including students, faculty and academic staff. Over a five-year cycle, this group reviews and re-formulates the institutional mission and vision, develops goals to ensure that we put our mission and vision into practice, and monitors progress toward achieving those goals. The process also includes inviting external stakeholders to a visioning session.

In the current planning cycle, our Focus 2020 goals include the mandate to “Expand, sustain, and collaborate on internal and external partnerships.” So, a culture of collaboration is fostered directly by the goals established by the key planning body on campus.

An additional factor supporting a collaborative culture on campus has been a strong spirit of cooperation between senior administrators across all campus divisions. The focus of the group has been marshaling existing resources as effectively as possible, without concern for divisional boundaries. Examples include the development of a space allocation committee that includes representatives from Facilities Management and Academic Affairs; a scholarship committee that includes cross-campus membership; and a classroom and lab modernization review process that has broad representation. As another example, the Dean of Students Office was moved to a new division based on the close working relationship between Housing and the Dean of Students Office. An Integrated Marketing and Communications Committee has been developed that brings together staff from across campus to ensure that the university is presenting a common message to internal and external constituents. At another level, decisions about tenure-track positions involve departmental consultation, followed by shared decision making involving departments, deans and the Provost’s Office.

Barriers to collaboration are widespread in educational institutions. Despite the pervasive culture of collaboration at UW-Stout, it would be misleading to imply that we have eliminated all barriers to collaboration. In fact, widespread budget cuts in higher education (including those affecting our institution) have the potential to thwart collaboration, when the budget process is viewed as a zero-sum game. Additionally, university systems are often driven by a one-size-fits-all model, and collaborations often push the envelope with needed customization.

However, we think this challenging budget environment also affords the opportunity to enhance collaboration if the institutional culture focuses on what is best for improving the overall environment for teaching and learning. In a resource-constrained environment, the recognition that collaboration can be a key to more effectively marshaling institutional resources to enhance the services we provide can serve as a critical guidepost for institutional decision making. At the end of the day, it comes down to continuous communication and welcoming creative problem solving.

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