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Can Universities Join Forces to Scale Innovation? Bridget Burns on Radical Collaboration

By Marguerite McNeal

Competition is the name of the game for public research universities. They’re used to vying for state and federal funds, athletic titles and faculty. But in the face of a looming talent shortage and growing inequality, 11 universities are laying down their weapons and sharing lessons for student success.

The University Innovation Alliance formed in 2014 to raise college graduation rates—especially among first-generation, low-income students—across its 11 member institutions. Earlier this month the UIA announced it’s on track to beat its goal of graduating an additional 68,000 students by 2025. Six member universities—The Ohio State University, University of Central Florida, Arizona State University, Iowa State University, Oregon State University and Purdue University—have each increased the number of low-income graduates by more than 19 percent.

UIA Executive Director Bridget Burns is hesitant to toot the group’s horn. “My objective is not just to hit that goal,” she says. “It’s to get other campuses to feel like they can also change their behavior, change their institutions, and achieve a greater degree of productivity for students across the spectrum.”

Each year the UIA focuses on one “scale project”—an effort that’s achieved success at one campus and can spread to others. First it was predictive analytics; this year it’s proactive advising. EdSurge sat down with Burns last week at SXSWedu to learn how these institutions collaborate, why it matters and how their lessons can have ripple effects across higher education.

What does collaboration between 11 public research institutions look like?

From the beginning, we said that everything had to actually add value for the campuses and make their lives easier. I have a one-on-one relationship with all of the presidents and chancellors and they meet several times a year privately with me. Each university has a student success team that’s really owning this one project: what is the delta in performance between low- and high-income students, and students of color and white students, and first-generation and multi-generation students? What does that gap look like on our campus and how are we going to close it? That team meets monthly at least; many meet every other week.

We hold convenings of these student success committees, and it’s never more than 100 folks. We’re evolving our community norms, but we’ve created a community of practice that is not just a convenient group that gets together. We actually have metrics; we’ve set very  public goals.

How do you get universities, which don’t like to admit failures, to open up about what’s happening on their campuses?

They had to get to know each other. Look at Brené Brown’s research—you share your story with people who earn the right to hear it. They each had to step out and share something that was somewhat vulnerable or hard. We also have had sessions at our convenings that are about sharing from failure.

Nobody’s ever trying to talk badly about the technology. It’s usually about ‘We didn’t include this department and now we’re out over our skis. So if I had to do it over, I’d do this and this.’ Once you start the conversation that way it snowballs. Someone else will share their story. You’re not going to do that at a conference. Me and 10,000 of my closest friends? That’s unrealistic.

There are big entities and big associations that are trying to make a difference in this space. And they are. But you cannot scale close, intimate relationships at a rate beyond what I think is 100 people at a time.

The UIA announced it’s on track to beat its goals for improving graduation rates. What have been the biggest success factors?

After all this time talking about scale, I thought that the real meaningful driver was going to be high-tech and whiz-bang. It’s relationships. You can look at any other space where ideas are spreading and people are sharing and it seems to be the engine that transcends time.

Part of it is that. Part of it is we’re committed to shifting the values of the entire sector. I’m not interested in this being a burden to our campuses. I’m interested in using this group’s magnanimous behavior or exceptional behavior to incentivize others. Bureaucracy self perpetuates; it’s part of its nature. The idea that we’re going to take our existing bureaucracies and try to adapt them and redesign them around students—that is very hard. It does us no good if we make it too hard for anyone to do. We have to find a way to make it attainable and realistic and feel good and rewarding.

How do UIA members evaluate technology?

Purdue did an RFI. We got all these answers back, and it’s not helpful what people describe about their technology. It’s not helpful for me to figure out if it’s the right fit for my campus. How do we kick the tires and vet them and background check? We hired an evaluator to try and do that for the whole group.

We need a Yelp for higher-ed edtech. We had to create a list of all the people who say they play in this space. Here are the ones we actually know are for real in terms of we can find campuses that have worked with them and had a positive and negative experience example. We didn’t want to be just a bunch of fans.

It was quite hard to do matchmaking between campuses and finding the right vendor. I do not want all of our campuses to use the same technology. I think that would be a failure to some degree. Not a failure on our part, but I don’t think it helps the community at large, because we need a vibrant edtech community that’s thriving and that has options for every type of campus.

How can other colleges and universities benefit from UIA’s work?

We have to figure out how we connect with our observers. We have 30 campuses who’ve signed up to say, ‘We want to learn from this.’ I’m trying to figure out what are the things that we can share. How do we share them in a way that other people can actually use them? We’ve started to see really significant changes and campuses who are adapting and adopting new ideas. Central Florida just started a whole new grant program based on what they saw at Georgia State.

We didn’t know that people were going to want to join this. Now I get an email at least every other week from a campus asking to join the alliance. I’m not interested in convincing anyone that this is a worthy cause. But I am interested in finding other people who believe what we believe, and we want to give them everything we learn. We want to give them our templates, and the inventory we did of vendors and our data-sharing agreement.

We’re trying to figure out how to set up a space to connect with these other campuses and give them what we have done as quickly as possible so that they can move forward. We are in a crisis and we’ve got to figure this out quickly. People are looking for a hero and I don’t think the Clark Kerr of the next generation is one person. I think it’s a group of 11 presidents who have found a way to work together and give away everything they’ve learned to actually move the entire sector forward.


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