Johnson: Unleashing the power and productivity of higher educationWritten by Dan Johnson | | firstname.lastname@example.org
The new year is a great time for resolutions, new beginnings and creative initiatives. This is true for institutions as well as individuals. It is in this spirit that I want to share an idea that excites me and that I believe would enrich and strengthen the education assets in our region.
Regions of the country that have the wealth of colleges and universities that we have here in Northwest Ohio are rare and, indeed, fortunate. The University of Toledo, Bowling Green State University, Owens Community College, Northwest State Community College, Lourdes University, Terra Community College and several private, for-profit institutions serve the people and communities of Northwest Ohio. Just across the state line in Southeast Michigan are still more colleges and universities separated from Northwest Ohio more by jurisdictional lines than distance or mission.
Each of the colleges and universities has its own unique history, distinct identity, mission, goals and strategic plans designed and implemented to serve its students, advance knowledge and understanding and promote economic development directly and indirectly. Each of these fine institutions is having a positive impact through their academic and technical degree programs, research projects and programs, as well as outreach and engagement in their communities. Most have athletic programs that energize the competitive urges we all feel and we relish the rivalries that are played out annually on our region’s fields of sport. Their programs in the arts, particularly the performing arts, elevate our collective spirits year after year.
The combined and collective benefits of these institutions measured in terms of individual achievement, educational attainment, discoveries in the laboratories, economic development and entertainment in its various forms are huge. The overall impact of our colleges and universities on our region and its several communities has never been fully assessed, but few would deny their uncalculated importance. Some feel, as do I, that nothing has been of greater importance in defining and advancing our region than our institutions of higher education.
Today, however, all of these fine colleges and universities are struggling to maintain the quality of their programs. The tired cliché of “doing more with less” has been taken to its limits. The funding base, particularly for our public institutions, is shrinking rapidly and shifting the ever larger burden to students and their families, most frequently in the form of debt. Programs and services are being eliminated, reducing the ability of the institutions to compete nationally and internationally.
It is in this environment that we are now seeking new paradigms, more cost-effective models and even bold experiments to help ensure that we do not lose those unique and essential values our colleges and universities bring to our communities and region.
This environment also offers an opportunity and, indeed, a significant incentive to explore at a regional level a strategic collaborative approach to strengthening existing programs and even adding needed new academic, research and outreach programs. Through a strategic collaborative approach, our colleges and universities would have the capacity to better serve Northwest Ohio and its several communities as well as enhance the region’s ability to compete with the nation’s finest and strongest educationally endowed regions.
Interestingly, this is not a novel suggestion or new approach to increasing the return on our higher education investment. Several regional higher educational collaborative models offer practical and workable approaches that we in Northwest Ohio might do well to study. One with which I am personally familiar is the Federation of North Texas Area Universities. This federation, established in 1968, is a consortium of three excellent universities: Texas A&M University — Commerce, Texas Woman’s University and the University of North Texas. The mission of the consortium is to coordinate various graduate programs and other activities among the participating universities. Graduate students entering one of the federated programs have access to the combined academic resources of all three universities including faculty, laboratories, libraries, facilities, advisers, and thesis/dissertation supervisors.
In addition to strengthening the region’s educational programs and infrastructure, students enrolled in the Federated institutions have expanded opportunities to interact with other students in a broad range of classes, seminars, conferences and special programs.
The Federation of North Texas Area Universities is one of several consortia currently operating nationally that capture additional value from the investment in higher education and that strengthen the capacity of a region to compete at the highest levels. The Boston Consortium for Higher Education is another example of strategic collaboration among such institutions as Harvard, Boston University, Northeastern University, Tufts University and others.
A similar federation of Northwest Ohio colleges and universities, if created, would bring added value to our students and strengthen our region’s capacity to not only attract and retain students but attract investment and foster greater efficiency and enhanced innovation through strategic collaboration among our institutions’ academic programs, research initiatives and outreach activities. Institutional identities, such as those in Texas, Boston and elsewhere, are well preserved and even strengthened in such consortia but leveraged to a higher level of productivity, attractiveness and visibility.
This may be a good time for our area colleges and universities to explore this well-seasoned, effective model for strengthening our institutions and our regional economy. It is working well and adding value in other progressive regions and I believe it could do the same in Northwest Ohio.
It is truly exciting to envision what could be done if we were to do in Northwest Ohio what they are successfully doing in Texas, Boston and a growing number of regions across the country.
Dan Johnson is director of global initiatives, president emeritus and distinguished university professor of public policy and economic development at the University of Toledo. Email him at email@example.com.