Monday, June 28, 2010

 

Partnerships

Although they’re invisible to many faculty, we administrators spend an increasing amount of our time on partnerships with various community agencies, philanthropies, consortia, employment boards, and other ad hoc collaborative groups.

That’s driven by several factors. First, of course, is the basic fact that many social or economic issues require multiple fronts of attack. Improving the employability of the local workforce requires higher education, but not only that; it also requires childcare, social services, and active input by prospective employers in the area.

Second is a history of agencies tripping over each other’s feet. A student who can’t get to class because her daycare fell through shows up as attrition at the college, even if the root of the problem isn’t at the college. In my first year on faculty at Proprietary U, I was struck at the lack of synchronization between the class schedule and the bus schedule; students actually asked to leave class fifteen minutes early to catch a bus, since the next one wouldn’t arrive for several hours. There’s no winning that one.

Third is funding. Government agencies, nonprofits, and philanthropists are getting savvier about the full-court press, so they’re increasingly writing interagency collaboration into the grant requirements. Colleges will go where the money is, so if the money is in collaboration, that’s where we’ll go.

Finally, at some level, there’s a general sense that collaboration is a Good Thing. Which, in a general sense, is true.

But the transaction costs are amazing.

You don’t really appreciate how difficult collaboration is until you contrast it to running your own stuff. Every collaboration needs a “go-to person” at each site, sometimes grant-funded, sometimes not. Every collaboration has its own calendar, which is usually an amalgam of the various partners’ calendars and the preferences of the funding agency. Every partnership has its own ‘benchmarks,’ its own reporting protocols and requirements, its own sunset provisions, its own local ‘matching’ requirements, its own acronyms -- what is it about granting agencies and acronyms? -- and its own assumptions about how the constituent institutions actually run. Those assumptions are frequently, and maddeningly, wrong, but it’s considered bad form to say so.

For example, I’ve had to walk away from grants because they required us to scramble jobs in ways that violated collective bargaining agreements; because they’ve assumed the presence of ‘matching’ resources that simply don’t exist; and because absolutely nobody on campus was willing to be the “go-to person” (also called the “champion”). When you’ve already cut departments to the absolute essentials -- a perfectly predictable consequence of a simultaneous funding crunch and enrollment boom -- then you don’t have the spare resources to devote person-hours to ancillary activity. You don’t have the money it takes to apply for money.

With each new go-to person, we either have a new administrator on campus, or a new pair of adjuncts to carry the classes from which a professor is released. (I sometimes see bloggers asking why we don’t see adjunct administrators. We do. Any time a full-time professor gets a course release for administrative work, that’s adjunct administration. Don’t be distracted by the presence of a middleman.) When we have to hire a new person on ‘soft money’ -- the term of art for grant money with expiration dates -- we still have to do the full search process, with all of the time and money that entails.

All of which is fine, when the projects are good. But they’re much more time-consuming than they get credit for, and far more complicated to manage. They’re consuming ever more administrative time, and the trend line is upward.

Honestly, in many cases, it would be a hell of a lot more efficient just to fund the institutions sufficiently in the first place.

Comments:
That doesn't even include the collaborating institutions which are incompetent and/or have never done this before, leading to time (and money) wasted on both sides.
 
Government agencies, nonprofits, and philanthropists are getting savvier about the full-court press, so they’re increasingly writing interagency collaboration into the grant requirements. Colleges will go where the money is, so if the money is in collaboration, that’s where we’ll go.

Funny you should mention this: my family's business does grant writing for nonprofit and public agencies, and two of our recent blog posts deal with the inanities that can come from collaboration requirements: “What Exactly Is the Point of Collaboration in Grant Proposals? and a follow-up post.

The biggest problems with mandatory collaboration in social service proposals are that a) organizations often compete with each other and b) the collaboration often only increases bureaucratic hassles without improving actual service. More on both at the links above.

Not all collaboration is bad, as some commenters implied (and as you point out), but in a lot of contexts it is.
 
When we have to hire a new person on ‘soft money’ -- the term of art for grant money with expiration dates -- we still have to do the full search process, with all of the time and money that entails.

I should've read the whole post before commenting the first time -- sorry about that -- a second story: there was/is a program called Community Oriented Policing Strategies (COPS) that gave money to hire more cops. But a lot of departments wouldn't touch the money because the funding was only for three years. In most populated places, if you hire an officer, they become a member of the union, at which point they can be fired. You get three years of funding for a 30-year commitment. That meant most applicants were departments that wanted or needed to hire/expand anyway.
 
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