March 1998 // Case Studies
Cooperation and Competition: Case Studies of Academic Partnerships Using Information Technology
by Barbara Horgan
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Barbara Horgan "Cooperation and Competition: Case Studies of Academic Partnerships Using Information Technology" The Technology Source, March 1998. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Why Cooperate?

Strategic partnerships have become key to success in corporations. Increasingly, the same is also true for higher education. Faced with competition from industry and consumer demands for higher quality, greater flexibility, and lower costs, higher education institutions are looking at ways to do more with less. Partnering has the potential to effect cost savings through greater efficiency, as well as to add value and promote responsiveness to change.

The corporate sector forms partnerships for survival and competition, either purchasing companies it needs or forming relationships among peers to fight off larger threats. Higher education also has a strong history of collaborating, even among institutions that are traditional competitors. The Association for Consortium Leadership, with a membership of 59 multi-institutional, multi-purpose regional consortia out of a total of about 125 in higher education, has existed for thirty years. Current interest in collaboration is evidenced by another trade association, the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO), whose July 1996 issue of Business Officer was titled "The Art of the Partnership."

Some consortia have a strong focus on information technology. The Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) has represented the research universities in the Midwest since 1958. Among its activities are CICnet, a major regional network, now separately incorporated, and a Learning Technologies Initiative. NWACC, the Northwest Academic Computing Consortium, founded NorthwestNet, another regional Internet provider that later went private. The western governors are banding together to form a virtual university, starting with geography but focused on a paradigm of anywhere/anytime education.

The Virtual Consortium

Worldwide networks enable program and resource sharing without the need for geographic proximity. Institutions on opposite sides of the continent––or world––can become partners, with information technology (IT) providing the means as well as the reason to collaborate. The increasingly strategic importance of IT to higher education, as well as its high costs, are leading many institutions to share such things as software licensing, training programs, courseware development, and databases, for both cost savings and greater access to resources.

Distance education efforts often represent partnerships among different institutions, like the Western Governors University, or between higher education and corporations. An innovative new collaboration just announced in California is a partnership between public higher education and several key technology vendors to provide information technology infrastructure throughout the state colleges and universities (Young, 1997). This new partnership, the California Educational Technology Initiative, or CETI, is causing concern, though, among faculty and students fearful of the influence of industry on academia (Young, 1998).

Despite these fears, consortial partnerships are likely to become more common, both within higher education and between higher education and other sectors. Given this growing need for partnerships, what are the critical success factors and what role can technology play in present and future consortia? Some answers to that question can be gleaned from looking at two very different but successful collaborations.

The Five Colleges, Inc.: A Long History of Collaboration

In 1995, The Five Colleges, Inc. decided to create a new position to focus on information systems resources across their five colleges and universities in western Massachusetts: Amherst, Hampshire, Mt. Holyoke, Smith, and the University of Massachusetts. One of the earliest projects of this general-purpose consortium, which was formed thirty years ago, was a shared online library catalog.

Joint IT Projects

Now that there is a full-time IT person on staff, joint information technology projects among the five colleges move forward more easily and rapidly. The position of Assistant Coordinator for Information Systems is held by Tom Warger, a former IT director at a liberal arts college. He provides project management––including development of Requests for Proposal (RFP’s), negotiation with vendors, and budget control––encourages sharing of information among the schools, and explores new products and opportunities. He also facilitates implementation of IT-related grants, such as a $1.1 million Mellon Foundation grant encouraging faculty to produce multimedia instructional materials.

Online Services

Several online services sponsored by Five Colleges––a course catalog, library catalog, events calendar, online guides to area museums, TechnoLogue (a regularly-updated listing what’s new in technology in the five colleges), the Multimedia Access Project (MAP), and the Archives Digital Access Project––as well as joint technology planning committees, strengthen coordination and information sharing. In addition to online services and committees, other activities include a Museum Database Project, ongoing technology training for faculty, resource-gathering and research on adaptive technologies and copyright/intellectual freedom, and consolidation of license agreements for selected software used at the five colleges.

Technology Transfer

One of the most innovative new collaborations is a shared software project that has resulted from internal technology transfer and a regional venture development initiative. Evan Henshaw-Plath, a student at Hampshire, one of the five colleges, became involved in the Lemelson Program, which encourages invention and innovation among faculty and students. From a class he took on designing computer applications, Evan developed student-scheduling software, with grant funding from the Program.

His interest in software development led to a decision to become an entrepreneur. Mass Ventures, a western Massachusetts non-profit company, provided him with both venture capital and strategic business planning. Conversations with Tom Warger about the Five Colleges’ need for a scheduling program were further encouragement for Evan to start his own company and develop an academic interest into a commercial product. After market research, Evan decided there was enough need for a high-quality event management system on college intranets, developed a product to meet the need, and sold it to Five Colleges. His software, Calendrome, is now in the process of being installed and implemented.

According to Tom Warger, one thing that makes Five Colleges successful is its grassroots, opportunistic spirit. The process of identifying intellectual property that can be commercialized is one example of this multi-level effort. Information and talent brokering, bringing the right people and data together to achieve synergy and results, is another success of the consortium.

North Suburban Higher Education Consortium (NSHEC): The Network is the Consortium

A different, newer consortium, NSHEC, includes Illinois colleges, universities, community colleges, and high schools in Chicago’s north and northwest suburbs. NSHEC originated to plan, coordinate and expand the availability of quality undergraduate and graduate education in under-served and rapidly growing areas. While the consortium arose from a state directive for cooperative programming/distance education in 1989, NSHEC has been successful in adapting a broad mission to specific results.

Two-Way Video And More

Despite a non-technical goal, NSHEC has focused primarily on one major project: design, installation, and implementation of a telecommunications network to provide a private, two-way interactive videoconferencing network between the institutions. A $1.3 million capital grant was provided by the Illinois Board for Higher Education, and at present 33 rooms connect eleven institutions, including four high schools.

Patricia Widmayer, Executive Director of NSHEC, has been a prime mover in the consortium since 1990. With a doctorate in Curriculum and Research and experience in government policy, planning, and administration, she learned the technical details necessary to run the network on the job. With help from a Technical Task Force, she developed the network RFP. After a year trying to troubleshoot the network on her own, she issued another RFP to provide technical support via an outsourced Help Desk. Next steps for the consortium include deploying a collaborative ATM network among the sites.

Another Collaboration

NSHEC has also formed a partnership with another consortium in the Chicago area called Collaboratory, an initiative funded by a four-year $1.8 million grant from the Ameritech Foundation. The grant is enabling Northwestern University to extend its expertise in designing network infrastructure and services to organizations, particularly schools and libraries, who lack Northwestern’s technical knowledge and funding. Together NSHEC and Collaboratory worked to address faculty technology needs by offering week-long summer workshops on designing web-based class materials. Follow-up meetings to discuss the status of projects and the challenges of using networked information in the classroom will continue throughout the year.

Of the ten consortia mandated and funded by the state of Illinois, NSHEC is perhaps the most progressive and successful. It has only a two-person staff––one part-time director and one full-time associate––who run an informal organization without bylaws or incorporation. Funding is from an annual state grant, which pays for the network, and a $12,500 annual membership fee for line charges, the Help Desk, and a small reserve. It's an example of a simple structure that has been able to effect change and promote collaboration among institutions not ordinarily partners.

What Makes Consortia Successful?

Effective committees and good communication are essential to the success of a consortium, whether one mandated by the state or one developed from the ground up to meet the perceived needs of its members. By collaborating with and on technology, NSHEC and Five Colleges, Inc. are able to realize economies of scale, maximize the skills in each institution to the benefit of all, and share programming. In order to continue to be successful, however, someone like Tom Warger or Pat Widmayer, has to bring people together, electronically and in person, to clarify and commit to goals. While consortia often operate with minimal staff (as NSHEC does), a coordinator or director is necessary to continually manage the information and process its flow.

Support from the top is also critical. The Board of Five Colleges consists of the CEO’s/Presidents of each institution; the steering committee of NSHEC are individuals high enough in their organizations to have the CEO’s ear. But in academia, top-down dictates, no matter how reasonable, are often suspect. It's important for the faculty to see something in it for them, whether grant support for shared research or training on how to use information technology in teaching.

In addition, consortia can serve a change management role by being more entrepreneurial and less conservative than the institutions they represent. New ideas, programs, and technologies can be tried out by the consortia without the political fallout that might occur if these initiatives were undertaken within the institutions themselves. Consortia must be flexible enough to meet the changing needs of their members.

While geographic proximity and a shared vision have often been the key components of a successful consortium, there must additionally be significant opportunities perceived by the partners, people willing to work together, clarity on strategic objectives, favorable timing, patience, and perseverance (Shafer & Reed, 1996). Although these case studies have described partnerships of institutions close in location to each other, the time seems favorable not only for more consortia but also for broader alliances, using information technology to form virtual collaborations.


Shafer, B.S. & Reed, W.S. (July, 1996). Consortia in higher education. NACUBO Business Officer, 30(1), 51-52.

Young, J. (1997, December 19). Proposed technology deal stirs controversy at California State. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved February 1998 from the World Wide Web: art-44.dir/issue-17.dir/17a02401.htm

Young, J. (1998, January 7). Disputed deal with technology companies is delayed by California State U. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved February 1998 from the World Wide Web: dailarch.dir/9801.dir/98010701.htm

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