At a gathering of education and non-profit leaders, I was asked to facilitate a conversation, to provide a “spark.” The organizers gave me a prompt, a statement as the basis of a short presentation. The prompt queried the effectiveness of networks of institutions to advance change. Do they? The organizers wanted to get the participants to start talking about higher educational organizations and their impact. It is a a more than reasonable request. In fact, considering the time and effort so many of us give to conferences, summits, and networks, it is a valuable question worthy of sustained consideration.
It strikes me that for many of my of colleagues, even though we all may claimed to feel siloed and working independently, higher education provides a rich soil organizations. Looking at things from a broader perspective, we are rife with ways of coming together.
The multitude of disciplinary and functional groupings immediately come to mind. Pick an academic discipline or an academic function, financial aid to IT to businesses offices to advisors, and there is a professional group. Or groups, as many disciplines and functions can support multiple groupings. In similar fashion, there are innumerable groupings based on geographic region, on identity (religion, race, ethnicity, gender). We also have groups and organizations keen to effect a particular change, be it advancing stronger first year of study or improved completion rates. All told, there have to be significantly more higher education related organizations than there are institutions of higher education.
While we may be bowling alone, we invariably head to conferences, organized by something or someone, to talk about it.
All that leads to an interesting question: which higher education organizations have facilitated what significant positive changes? Many have contributed and done things, to be sure, but gauging the impact of any one organization in a particular realm is a difficult, if not impossible, challenge. How have they done it? Is there a recipe, a secret sauce, that makes for an effective academic organization? It is a question beyond the scope of this post.
And why do we join, travel, log in and participate in so many of these groupings? Resume and c.v. bolstering, to be sure, is a factor, as are opportunities to learn and grow. We often wear multiple hats and have multiple professional identities in higher education. Organizations offer the nourishment to keep those identities vibrant. Ending my membership and subscriptions to history journals, as a personal example, was a fraught decision that involved much more than saving money and rationalizing that I could access the journals through my library. It meant, too, that in some way I was no longer thinking of myself as an historian. I have heard versions of that account from many friends and colleagues.
It is more, though, than personal and professional impetus that keep us trying to work together through organizations and groupings. Networks and organizations are necessary, yet perhaps not sufficient players in the development of effective higher education practitioners, units and institutions. They provide invaluable opportunities for us to find like-minded souls, to learn and share. This is essential in higher education. Each of us, each of our units, each of our institutions, has to determine its own best way to meet mission in particular and changing circumstances. What each of us have learned over the years, especially if we have worked in different institutions, is that there is no one best way. Instead, there are many better ways – and even more less effective ways. The only way to comprehend this and to gather the tools and skills is through conversation, study, and more conversation.
The value of networks and organizations in higher education is that they give us opportunities to talk with each other. Real power, especially to effect positive change, is in those conversations, communication and discussions, friendships and debates.
My “spark” at the event was along these lines with an important emphasis on human interaction. I believe that it is the people that makes organizations truly valuable: meaningful dialogue with each other. Journals and long c.v.s are fine, but they are not where the action is. I kept my presentation short, too, making sure that there was time for people to talk to each other.
Don’t just attend the presentation at your next organizational event. Make a friend and a connection. We need each other more than ever.