Independent to a fault: why foundations and higher education frustrate each other and what might be done about it
In February 2002, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that The Atlantic Philanthropies–which according to its Web site had awarded nearly $1.4 billion in grants to higher education–was “moving to withdraw financial support from higher education.” The story had a short shelf life and the grim news drew little more than a shrug in most quarters.
One reason may be that Atlantic’s grant-making had been anonymous for most of its preceding 20 years, muting a fuller appreciation of the significance of its exit. Elsewhere, the same story noted that the Kellogg Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts had both narrowed their higher education interests and cut the total amount of money provided to higher education. Some foundations have remained steadfast, but others have followed a similar course.
When foundations pull back their support to a field, they generally offer brief and uninformative explanations for their actions. They may cite a record of past achievement, a new constellation of social needs, and a consequent reconfiguration of priorities. These are good reasons. But other, more disturbing, rationales for the foundations’ recent rift with higher education are circulating across the networks of those close to the scene.
These include friction between instrumental foundation agendas and conservative college and university identities; frustration with the opaqueness of higher education with respect to accountability for results; uncertainty about whether institutions will sustain what foundations help them begin; and the perceived probability that generalizabble solutions to what are truly common problems will stay closeted within the particular institutions that developed them.
This shifting of the foundation ground under colleges and universities should perplex those who care about higher education and who value the social role of foundations. It should also worry them. Both higher education and organized philanthropy are sources, as well as instances, of a free society. Their relation to each other is, in the most modest construction, non-trivial. Each also tends to have a strong ego and a well-developed sense of its fundamental independence. But it is precisely because of this substantial independence, or so I will argue, that they tend to misapprehend each other, become frustrated, and misjudge where their long-run interests coincide.
I was introduced to the priority placed on independence when the foundation president who hired me to be the sole education program officer at The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation told me, even before I began work: “Ray, you need always to remember that … It’s not your money; and you don’t know more than the grantees.”
The first of his two admonitions provides a necessary restraint that program officers must learn about the seductive influence of access to money. It struck me then, and still does, as an essential operating principle for a job in which foundation executives and boards provide wide latitude to program officers to develop grant-making agendas, but retain ultimate control.
The second admonition, though, seemed problematic to me and over time it grew more so. Intended as a brake on arrogance–a wholly admirable restraint to place on the typical face that a foundation presents to the higher education community–it lost in other dimensions what it accomplished against hubris. For it implied not only that colleges and universities were sovereign, but that they should also be left to their own devices.
From that I inferred that colleges and universities had little to learn (especially via program officers) from other colleges and universities. When a liberal arts college proposes, for example, that it engage a recent African American PhD as a post-doctoral fellow to teach its largely white faculty about diversity, would I be abandoning the good counsel of humility to point out–based on the experience of other institutions–how weak a strategy this is? Or should I simply decline to recommend a grant?
To take another example, when a university professor proposes creating first year seminars centered on different ways of knowing, would I feel free to require him to consult with others who had successfully advanced similar proposals as a condition of my considering his project? My president’s admonition began my introduction to the mores of foundation work: I was expected to function more as judge than colleague–as an applier of criteria but not as an intellectual resource–regardless of the knowledge that I increasingly acquired through my work.
As foundations celebrate the independence of colleges and universities, they also jealously guard their own. And they do not always win accolades in the process. Those who follow foundation affairs would not have been surprised to read a cover story in the December 2, 2002, issue of Business Week that reported philanthropy to be “a highly fragmented, remarkably inefficient array of enterprises.”
This disarray within the foundation world would be less important if it did not co-exist with a major contemporary shift in the potential impact of philanthropic dollars: As faith in government has diminished, responsibility for the common good has shifted toward private action. Whether one refers to “compassionate conservatism” or similar arguments that define independent charitable impulses as a major social asset, the evidence is tilting toward an increased role for philanthropy in doing not just what foundations want to do, but in more systematically considering what society needs done.
The same Business Week article observed that the “community, however, has no say in what [philanthropies] fund, even though the favorable tax treatment [they receive] is, in effect, a partial subsidy from the public.” Perhaps it should.
On the matter of potential infringements on institutional independence, however, the going gets sticky. One of the virtues of independence is its motive forrce. Free of regulation, foundations have an incentive to pay close attention to things, to notice when they start to go off the rails, when once-good ideas shade into comfortable but unproductive habits, and when unbalanced power suppresses potentially beneficial alternatives. Following closely is the responsibility to actively propagate changes that one believes are beneficial.
This is a role that colleges and universities have historically claimed as well. Together these free and influential engines are part of our society’s self-corrective mechanism. They have a perpetual license to act in the public interest. Thus the independence of foundations–as well as of colleges and universities–gives them power, influence, and good reason to pay attention to what society needs. But assurances that they will do so efficiently and effectively aren’t part of the deal.
It would require an unusually grim critic to argue that higher education is not enormously better off because of foundations. The largest foundations have had major influences on the social sciences and humanities, on business schools and research libraries, and on the cultivation and development of specific disciplines.
Foundations large and small have provided causal and catalytic stimuli to individual institutions to develop freshman seminars, diversity programs, service learning, women’s studies, scientific literacy, and so much else. The record indeed substantiates a broad range of bragging rights and I want to acknowledge that. But on the theory that one doesn’t have to be sick to get better, I believe that current performance is living up to neither the promise nor the need.
Excessive independence can lead potential collaborators, like misaligned magnets, to repel instead of attract one another. When this happens between foundations and higher education, as seems now to be the case, neither side will suffer significantly, obviously, or immediately. The operating margin for colleges and universities will simply shrink a bit more. Foundations, in turn, will refocus their attention on other worthy objectives.
But the real issue is long-term capacity, not short-term damage. The current separation coincides with a particularly significant opening for higher education and foundations to address critical issues that include the renewal of liberal education to confront the challenges of a burgeoning and fracturing world, undoing structural inequalities with respect to access and achievement, advancing social cohesion and building social capital, and undertaking the wholesale improvement of teaching and learning at all levels.
Standing in the way of a reconciliation, however, are some important structural habits that lead each of the two partners to misunderstand the other–slightly, but consequentially and cumulatively.
This situation, I contend, deserves more study than it has so far received. Its causes run deep. But they are not so deep that thoughtful people in both kinds of institutions can’t pull them to the surface and examine them, realize their consequences for cooperation, and seek more promising alternatives. To put the situation in higher relief, I look first at conditions in higher education, then in foundations. To conclude, I propose some ways to reconcile these currently out-of sorts partners in the light of their great and still-rising social importance.
The freedom that our colleges and universities provide for research and teaching constitutes an incalculable national asset. Institutions use this autonomy in different ways. Some, like community colleges and comprehensive public universities, emphasize access and stay close to direct public service commitments. Others, like liberal arts colleges, nourish particular habits of mind and their application to life and living.
Still others, like research universities, enact a more complex but still very public role of being responsible incubators of ideas, creators of new knowledge, and chroniclers of the consequences of human action. Aspects of each role, of course, are found across all types of institutions. Colleges and universities rightly value and actively protect the independence that allows them to do these things. And I take it as a given that such independence in teaching, curriculum choices, and research is a virtue. But not without qualifications.
That a foundation might have objectives of its own, and that these objectives might merit a college’s or university’s consideration in deciding how to act, is not an idea that faculty members accord much legitimacy. Rather, like most of us, they seek the reassurance of unconditional love in the form of gifts and grants that affirm what they are already doing, and that ask for nothing in return except that they keep on doing it. Unrestricted grants, or funding designated for core expenses, are thus especially prized.
Grants that nudge an institution in a direction that it already wants to go anyway, or that help it get there faster, are only slightly less welcome. These awards help maintain the established institutional ecology. They help build the institution’s overall capacity to foster the interrelation of people, ideas, functions, and structures that can produce significant, but not predefined, results over time. The most beloved form of foundation support, then, consists of institution-building grants.
More chancy–and often more appealing to foundations–are grants where a foundation has excited a small group of faculty (or the reverse) to try something new, different, and presumably better. These projects are often about experimenting with novel approaches, creating new programs, or producing distinctive results. In these cases, the mandatory institutional endorsement may be nothing more than the equivalent of granting a hunting license for particular faculty. The potential for institutional sustainability if the idea is proven worthy is always a crap shoot–less so in flush times, more so in lean. But the quality of the animating idea, or even its success in execution, is no guarantee of a long-term influence on the institution itself.
To cite a personal example, when I once was negotiating a grant to a university school of education to establish a monograph series about best practices in K-12 education, I suggested to the dean a possible bonus from the project. Having identified best practices, the school could, I ingenuously declared, incorporate these practices into its own teacher training.
The dean eyed me the way professors eye sophomores: a nice-sounding idea, perhaps, but irremediably naive. Professors are the judges of what they teach, he reminded me, and it would be entirely up to them, individually, whether they would incorporate any of the theories or practices that their institution would be certifying in print as “best.”
Whether this truly was a case of independence carried too far is a complicated question. But the fact that the irony of the situation was lost on the dean is worth thinking about.
How well do foundations’ own objectives map onto this preferred college and university continuum from unconditional to conditional support? “Inversely” and “partially” would be a generally correct answer. Occasionally a foundation may have an affinity for a single institution or a small group of similar ones and be content to tender essentially unrestricted support to underwrite such things as faculty salaries, campaign matching gifts, or scholarships. When operating in this way, the foundation is essentially indistinguishable from a loyal alumnus who wants to support his alma mater.
Absent an affinity for simply improving the general well-being of a particular institution, foundation objectives often emphasize generalizable and scalable improvements. They may therefore seek a pledge from the grantee to design the project so that successful results will have a beneficial influence on the field and not just on itself. Grantees’ promises to help propagate grant-based achievements, however, are seldom effectively or robustly delivered. A few institutions may make an effort to disseminate findings in more than desultory ways. For most grantees, however, the focus remains internal.
The institution’s reward system may celebrate landing a successful grant but it normally has little interest in its aftermath. In a project director’s defense, I acknowledge that the effort involved in simply trying to have an effect on one’s own institution may leave one depleted. But a more formidable brake on diffusion is that academics tend to believe that the force of an idea is inherent in its quality; that is, if a grantee successfully shows that his proposal idea is important, and that it works, any further need to be proactive is unnecessary. Scalability is assumed to be a matter of recognition rather than advocacy. Responsibility for diffusion is likewise assumed to be located somewhere external to the grantee.
Even those who agree to spread the word almost invariably fail to notice how few incentives, and how little inclination, they and their own institution have in learning from the good work of others.
From a philanthropic point of view, the result is frustration. Good ideas seldom travel because they are pulled instead of pushed. A fine idea may be funded and be successful, only to have a nearby institution submit a similar proposal three or four years later whose identical core concept, it proudly proclaims, is “unique.” Perhaps the most overused word in college and university grant proposals, “unique” seldom means “unparalleled” or “incomparable.” Instead, it too often unselfconsciously signals ignorance of what already exists.
In its simplest terms, this situation is hugely wasteful. Institutional independence becomes an excuse for reinventing every wheel. This is not just costly. It also limits each initiative to the talent and experience that can be marshaled locally. Whatever others may have learned lies out of willing reach. The self-perception of originality, however partial and unfounded, easily satisfies an institution that sees itself as having little to learn from others, even with respect to issues or objectives that differ only insignificantly from campus to campus. One grant program that I oversaw was designed to support efforts to make campuses more inclusive and their graduates more multi-culturally fluent. Yet each annual grant competition produced a range of institutional proposals advancing (as if they were new) many of the same ideas that had been developed (or discarded) by a lonely crowd of like institutions over a period of three decades.
Foundation grants to associations have attempted, sometimes successfully, to develop programs that involve substantial numbers of institutions. Such efforts are generally heroic, because treating institutional learning as a collaborative enterprise remains countercultural to most academics and is logistically cumbersome.
The potential to come up with better ideas when institutions jointly tackle an issue, the ability to do more useful research on programs that are not limited to a single setting, and the potential savings involved in pooling resources and in designing products for wide application, are benefits that colleges and universities do not usually see and therefore don’t eagerly embrace.
Foundations, then, are expected to fund multiple instances of the same thing even though one instance may have strong champions, another a powerful design, a third a well-developed assessment program, and none of them all three.
Foundations are not simply victims in this situation. They add their own peculiarities to the mix. Most foundations by design or inclination are not equipped to be long-term strategic actors in higher education. When they complain about higher education, they often cite frustration at the refractive nature of colleges and universities, their perpetual organizational inertia (not all bad), and the loose internal couplings (also a virtue in many respects) that make concerted action so difficult. But what has been the foundations’ own role in these disappointments?
Foundations are willing partners in making individual institutions stronger and more exciting. But they also want to expand know-how and add to or alter practices across institutions. By according priority to what has lately been labeled “knowledge-building” (that is, advancing the understanding of practice) and “field-building” (that is, advancing the skills and norms of practice), foundations raise the stakes of the relationship between themselves and colleges and universities.
But foundations as organizations have built-in limits that tend to thwart their good intentions. These relate mainly to organizational and operational choices that influence foundations’ ability to field effective strategies over time. The following four factors, while they do not describe every foundation, are fairly typical.
Program instability. While there are notable exceptions, the program initiatives of many foundations tend to be unstable. That is to say they are seen by foundation leaders as more tactical than strategic, they are not well calibrated to objectives with respect to size or duration, and they are haphazardly targeted. Here are some of the reasons:
1) Many foundations by design or happenstance have short tenures for program officers–the field staff who design programs, identify prospects, and recommend grants. No matter what the term, moreover, the early tenure of a program officer is necessarily spent in learning to see the field through the lens of a grant-maker.
Even if, as is typical, she or he was once a college or university faculty member or administrator, simply spending time in or around institutions of higher education equips one with an acute and strategic perspective about higher education issues only marginally better than does having gone to school prepare one to know how to improve public education.
When I left higher education for philanthropy, it occurred to me that foundation grants had been reckoned by my university largely in terms of total dollar amount rather than in terms of educational impact. Learning to function as something more than merely a source of funds had to quickly claim a place on my agenda. I had little experience or guidance about how to do that, so a significant portion of my time had to be invested in on-the-job learning–not a particularly efficient approach.
2) The role of program officer is inherently peculiar, with no well-defined career path, no broadly understood qualifications, and no generally accepted standards of performance. This tends to make each program officer’s tenure idiosyncratic (in both the good and bad senses) with respect to interests, skills, networks, aspirations, technical qualifications, prior experience, work ethic, political savvy, and commitment.
The individualistic nature of the program officer’s role usually means that there is no continuity from one program officer to the next. Indeed, a successor may be hired explicitly to bring about a change. Though there are philanthropy training programs in a few university schools of education or public policy, knowledge of the particular area of interest to the hiring foundation is likely to trump professional philanthropic training in most program officer searches.
3) Boards are often impatient for breakthrough ideas. They easily tire of the methodical work of exerting leverage beyond a single institution or organization. These tendencies set de facto, and sometimes arbitrary, limits on how long a foundation is willing to stick with a particular theme. What a board may feel is dexterity when a foundation changes direction, to those in the field often looks like an indisposition to strategic thinking or simply fecklessness. This reluctance to stay the course is particularly troublesome in higher education because meaningful change is not just a matter of self-actualizing ideas or contagious innovations. The independence of colleges and universities often translates into insularity–a formidable barrier to the propagation of even the best of ideas. The length and character of a foundation initiative, then, needs to match what’s required for a strategy to make itself felt.
4) Foundations usually have small staffs, leaving program officers with few–and sometimes no–internal colleagues in their field with whom to deliberate purposes, ideas, assessments, and aspirations.
Small staff size also means that it takes virtually all of one’s time to handle the ill-documented and time-consuming art of marketing the program (projecting a new program interest to the quite amorphous population of potential grantees capable of creating strong proposals), processing proposals, monitoring grants and assessing their results, and budgeting and planning.
This makes other, less urgent, time-intensive activities (like developing networks, working with grantees to leverage results, creating and maintaining collaborations, or strategizing about knowledge- and field-building) unlikely to find their way onto a grant-maker’s agenda other than on a sporadic basis.
5) Cooperation among foundations is rare and is usually confined to a specific and relatively narrow initiative. There are a number of reasons for this. One is turf protection–the desire on the part of a foundation to be different and to define itself in terms of that difference. Another is the isolation of foundation boards and executive officers from their peers. Other reasons that deter cooperation among foundations are rooted in the factors described above. Thus foundations share few collective interests and undertake little collaborative action that might produce more powerful initiatives or develop broader principles of strategy and accountability.
Are there positive aspects to these five typical operating characteristics of foundations? Of course there are. Philanthropists fear ruts and want to keep their work fresh and flexible. These characteristics help them do that. But they also limit communication, hobble collaboration, and thwart knowledge- and field-building within the foundation community.
The short supply of valid and reliable knowledge. “Higher education” manifests itself in such a great variety of institutional types and circumstances that even the most reflective foundation officers and board members may occasionally find the work sprawling out of intellectual control. Easing them back into a sometimes spurious feeling of competence is the seductive fact that they themselves are all products of higher education. Thus everyone has views and may feel grounded by them. Sometimes these views are well developed; sometimes they constitute little more than opinions or prejudices. Seldom do they provide authentic guidance, absent a great deal of additional study, consultation, and further experience.
Add to that the limited resources devoted over the decades toward understanding how higher education actually functions, or the meager investment that foundations make in analyzing their own grant-making experiences. This variable and incomplete base of understanding predisposes foundations to start over when frustration builds to an uncomfortable level. That springs the trap of circularity: If one is always starting over, it is difficult to justify an investment in self-analysis; if one’s understanding is poor, it is tempting to keep starting over.
Limited leverage. Despite the appearance of formidable wealth, foundation philanthropy provides a very short lever for change. Higher education is a $250 billion a year enterprise. Foundations give roughly $5 billion a year to it (somewhat more, if one counts grants for other foundation programs such as health, population, or the environment that need higher education to advance their purposes). About one-fifth of that $5 billion goes to the top 100 gift-getting institutions. Much of the money here is paid out in the form of large, one-time gifts, often devoted to buildings or endowment. Even if this foundation largess were spread evenly over the Landscape–if, for example, it were averaged across all 15 million full- and part-time students–the total would be equivalent to no more than a share of the annual cost of their textbooks.
Programs that oblige the grantee to cover the continuing cost of operating what a foundation helps to initiate are particularly vulnerable. Among the wisest of foundations on this issue is Mellon, which states as a principle in the guidelines for its Liberal Arts College Program that “the Foundation will not support any new initiative that increases the per-student cost of education.”
Despite Mellon’s example, it remains painfully difficult for foundations not to insist on institutional budget support to sustain successful initiatives. They don’t want to see the gains of their investments vanish when they withdraw. But funders have little skill or stomach for auditing grantee performance about whether or not their investments were sustained. The variable behaviors of colleges and universities, then, contribute to the dissipation, atrophy, and eventual disappearance of much of the potential for foundation influence.
Frail theories of action. For most foundations, constructing an effective and respectable theory of action often takes a back seat to good intentions. How does a foundation get from A (an objective) to B (a beneficial and sustainable change)? Foundations must contend with colleges and universities that reflect complex mixtures of customs and habits, of organizational histories and structures, and of cherished traditions and fresh aspirations.
They must equally contend with lively paradoxes internal to most institutions that simultaneously function as preservers of epistemological canons and shifters of paradigms; bastions of privilege and engines of social change; conservators of hard-won wisdom, centers of contention and creators of agreement; cellars of fermenting ideas and beacons of startling illumination.
Those of us who have had a hand in managing these institutions know how they can be simultaneously different from as well as similar to one another when comparing public institutions to the private, large to small, highly selective to those with open-enrollment. Add a foundation and the dynamics get more curious.
For example, the funder may be seen as a foreign body or a welcome ally, a cause for suspicion or a form of external validation. The closer to the institution’s core principles and animating values a foundation program stays, the more amply it will be appreciated. The more a foundation seeks change, the more antibodies will rush into the institutional bloodstream.
Given these four characteristics, some of which foundations impose on themselves, a particular foundation may choose to work with only a few colleges, universities, or related organizations. It may create a niche market for particular institutions or ideas, fund a mix of individually interesting proposals, and satisfy itself that change will continue one institution at a time. If it does the latter, it must simultaneously accept the fact that each grant risks repeating the mistakes of others or involves a hard and often chancy institutional struggle to discover what others may already know. Given that higher education is increasingly a high-stakes enterprise and that the financial leverage of foundations is limited, focusing grant-making overwhelmingly on individual institutions may be too modest an ambition.
But given the historic independence of higher education institutions and foundations, how feasible is an expansion of the repertoire of operating options? And if feasible, could new strategies and tactics enhance the relationship between grantor and grantees without undermining that independence?
LONGER LEVERS, BETTER FULCRUMS
The muscular ethos of independence that characterizes colleges and universities, as well as foundations, leaves their relationship subject to cycles that are impossible to predict and difficult to alter. To some, that’s a small price to pay for the historic freedom of action that characterizes higher education and philanthropy. If higher education–now feeling the double-whammy of parlous budgets and diminished philanthropic portfolios–simultaneously finds foundation interest heading south, should it just hunker down and adjust? And can foundations easily look elsewhere to award their dwindled dollars, knowing that higher education involves so many of the people and ideas that will be crucial to philanthropy’s ability to create significant long-term value in its other areas of interest?
If the current trial separation becomes a divorce, we all lose. What might be done to rekindle the tough-minded affection that these two vital social institutions should have for one another? The two parties in this relationship have important characteristics that empower them as individual actors–among them talent, strong identity, agility, and credibility.
Other characteristics limit the development of productive mutual relationships a too-starchy sense of their individual importance, norms that devalue collaboration, and a sense that no one else sees an issue (or its solution) in quite the way it does. Each set of traits–limiting or empowering–are facets of a single characteristic: independence.
So let’s give only two-and-a-half cheers for independence. Going for three to celebrate our current condition invites trouble. To steady the relationship, then, let’s devote half-a-cheer for developing some additions to the strategic repertoire. To merit this half-cheer, many of the actors will need to experiment with new ways of working together. If they don’t, we cannot expect results that are much different than the occasionally splendid initiatives, but the all-too-frequent sputtering, episodic, stay-at-home projects and products that have characterized most of the higher education-foundation connection up until now.
What’s to be done’? What would it take to produce greater and more sustainable value from the higher education–foundation relationship? The following notions are meant to exist side by side with foundation support of institution-building and with colleges and universities continuing to seek foundation support for their individual initiatives. The two sets of ideas I propose below are meant as thought experiments rather than full-blown recommendations, and there could be a good deal of overlap between them.
Field- and knowledge-building. What if a foundation decided, just in this half-a-cheer corner of its work, to forgo the temptation to enhance just a single institution? Instead it might insist on proposals whose purposes were to build knowledge, policy, or practice applicable to an entire group of institutions, set of issues, or (ideally) both. Institutions would be expected to build their proposals analytically on the basis of the existing state of knowledge about the topic, and would commit to producing results that could be generalized and to undertaking efforts to propagate these results.
Foundations would then look for proposals that had the following characteristics (that might also lend themselves to a comparable foundation initiative):
1) Proposals centered on ideas that respond to critical issues in higher education, not just institutional enhancement–for example, retention to graduation for students drawn from underrepresented populations.
2) Proposals dealing with critical issues in a manner to which comparable institutions can relate and respond, such as taking leadership in collaborative peer-developed proposals.
3) Proposals grounded in research and other institutions’ experience with the phenomenon under study or development–for example, proposals that first would synthesize research findings on enhancing scientific literacy in undergraduate education and then use the results of analyses as the conceptual basis for what they propose.
4) A commitment on the part of the prospective grantee to implement successful results on a large scale, including the willingness to host visitors seeking to learn from the example. An illustration might be organizing a center devoted to the development of teaching skills and motivation in PhD candidates that welcomes visitors and offers summer workshops; this might be done in collaboration with one or more liberal arts or community colleges to complete the arc from learning to teach to teaching itself.
5) Projects committed to publishing results, actively consulting with institutions about them, and providing technical assistance to others–for example, using technology to individualize instruction or develop a Web site to give others access to successful methods and effective assessments.
Under such an approach, “unique” proposals would be disenfranchised in cases where “unique” merely signified ignorance of what is already known. Instead, the strategy would enfranchise proposals that reflect and extend the cumulative development of research and experience.
In comparable initiatives, foundations might then take responsibility themselves to use results of their grants to inform their own strategies (so that they become increasingly authoritative and wise), to seed-fund intermediary organizations to extend project-generated findings and provide technical assistance to new users, or to partner with various associations to incorporate new knowledge into their work.
To do this well, foundations would need to get past their antipathy to retaining additional staff so that they could hire, either as regular staff or as long-term consultants, individuals who are adept at diffusing innovation. And they might need to extend their typical span of engagement with an issue to include funding for a propagation strategy.
Collaboration as a source of leverage. The possibilities for collaboration are many: foundations with other foundations, colleges and universities with peers, and both groups with each other. The purpose would be to go deep on core topics, to build knowledge or technique that can be easily adapted to local settings because many minds have contributed to it. The analogy is to building capital that can be drawn on broadly.
What if the collaborators were foundations? They might frame their interest in terms of combinations that are capable of taking on larger, more complex, or more elusive issues affecting a large segment of higher education.
They might, for example, frame a set of issues within the larger constellation of racial, ethnic, gender, sexual orientation, religious, and other diversities, together with issues of access, success, tolerance, appreciation, inclusion, and social cohesion.
The efforts fielded so far in this area, despite admirable motivations and occasional achievements, display the typically weak and scattered results that occur when a common problem is tackled by foundations and institutions acting alone.
What if the collaborators were colleges and universities? They might fashion an effort based on reciprocal motivation–asking what each party has to contribute, and what each wants to learn. They might, for example, address the marked shift in student preferences from liberal arts to pre-professional and other career-oriented studies.
Each participating institution would likely have a different angle on this topic but each would nevertheless have a special stake in the benefits of liberal learning. They would acknowledge the value to society of graduates like the 31-year-old reporter who broke the Enron story in Fortune; when a New York Times reporter asked the Williams College alumna how she came to the story she said simply, “When you come out of a liberal arts background, you want to know why something is the way it is.”
What if the collaboration took the form of foundation-college/university partnerships? Such partnerships might, for a period of time, organize and apply a distinctive set of intellectual and experiential resources to teaching and learning. They might, for example, bring together sets of related insights and knowledge drawn from cognitive science, the uses of technology, character development and values formation, and curricular and pedagogical design. While each institution would eventually tailor such knowledge to its own setting, the knowledge itself could build the broader field of teaching and learning as well.
It is unrealistic to expect colleges and universities to respond to new ways of relating to foundations if all they have to go on are the kinds of guidelines or decision criteria typically provided by foundations’ Requests for Proposals.
To enhance the development of these new ways of thinking, foundations might allocate funds to pay for institutions to use consultants, might convene experts and advisory panels to assist with proposal development, and might hire staff dedicated to providing technical assistance and support to clusters of grantees who are working on comparable issues.
These resources could be applied to shaping proposals, evaluating pertinent research for its bearing on these potential projects, assessing the results of funded projects to yield new learning, and strategizing and facilitating the extension of that learning into the field.
In order to reconnect in ways that override the current affection/indifference cycle, higher education and the foundations will need to behave differently toward one another. Happily, they still have the potential to recapture a mutually beneficial relationship without sacrificing the independence that they (and we) should continue to treasure.
Because foundations are instances as well as champions of that independence, no one should confuse their adopting a critical stance with an appetite to steer. Asking tough questions about the scale and sustainability of effects implies a dialogue and negotiated agreement rather than an expectation of a coercive process or predetermined answers.
Foundations and institutions will understand each other better if, in some corner of their work, they experiment with different kinds of working relationships, collaborations, and projects that encourage more comprehensive and cumulative efforts to address issues in which they have common interests. There are many such issues that are bigger than what a single institution, foundation, or association can crack. And higher education and the foundations need each other to crack them.
The souring relationship between higher education and foundations is not a tale of too much ambition gone awry. Rather, it is more often one of too little ambition–unfocused, ambling over a vast conceptual territory, and accomplishing less than it might.
Independence, like any great virtue applied indiscriminately and excessively, is the chief culprit in this story. It has allowed two great institutions to linker with their relationship on the margin without any deep and searching looks at how this relationship is structured and how they might actually work more effectively together. It is time for them to rebuild their respective beliefs in the significance that they represent for one another, and to examine how to better realize and extend that significance. It is a partnership we badly need.
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