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Consortia in Higher Education

Types of Consortia, Conclusions

A consortium is an association of institutions for the purpose of improved and expanded economic collaboration to achieve mutually beneficial goals. In higher education, this organizational form was originally designed to foster interinstitutional cooperation among a group of colleges and universities for the purpose of enhancing services within a geographic region. More recently, as information and communication technologies have increased the availability of resources for research and development purposes, universities have joined with corporations and government agencies to form national and international consortia.

The parameters of academic cooperation may vary in scope by level of control (public-private), discipline (computer science, engineering, medicine), service provider (libraries, universities, science laboratories), or institutional level (research institute, government agency, corporation). Originating initially in the 1960s at a time of unprecedented expansion in higher education, consortia enabled institutions to share abundant resources. These consortia were voluntary, multi-institutional, multipurpose, and designed to serve their member institutions. By the mid-1970s, as institutions became more dependent on external sources of support, universities and colleges established consortia to sustain high-cost programs and facilities, strengthen constituent services, and penetrate new markets beyond their service area. In some instances, governing boards and funding agencies encouraged consortia development as evidence of economic collaboration among local and regional institutions to eliminate superfluous expenditures and achieve economies of scale and cost savings. Contemporary academic consortia may also be structured as school-university partnerships, business-university alliances, community-university coalitions, and multisystem networks. The current status of the academic consortium as an organizational form demonstrates its potential significance as a manifestation of the entrepreneurial university in a consumerist society.

Types of Consortia

The initial consortium structure consisted of three or more colleges and universities signing an agreement to cooperate in providing joint ventures, such as tuition waivers for cross-registration, faculty exchanges and professional development, interuniversity library privileges, joint purchasing of goods and services, and outreach projects. The success of these activities was heightened by comparability in missions, goals, laws, regulations, resources, and sources of support. More sophisticated and complex structural arrangements are now conceptualized around specialized purposes such as supercomputing, scientific research and development, medical school– teaching hospital collaboration, and cooperative degree programs in low-enrollment, specialized fields. In these cases, consortium objectives may be to reduce duplication and redundancy, gain access to federal agency funding, recruit international students, engage in advanced research, and utilize high-cost facilities.

Since the 1990s increased institutional investments in information and communication technology, with support from business and industry, have added important dimensions to consortia design. This growth has been most evident in multisystems and research universities as well as across national and international boundaries. Factors contributing to their longevity include the leadership and commitment of senior executives; formal agreements on resource sharing; collaboration in agenda setting, issue definition, and problem solving; realistic time-lines for project development; continuity in personnel; and complementary strategies for overcoming inequities and cultural differences among disparate partners.

Multipurpose academic consortia. The Association for Consortium Leadership (ACL) has identified 125 member consortia in the United States; these vary in size from 3 to 100 institutions engaged in a variety of collaborative projects. Two successful multipurpose academic consortia are Five Colleges, Inc. (Amherst, Smith, Mount Holyoke, and Hampshire Colleges and the University of Massachusetts– Amherst) and the Claremont Colleges, Inc., in California. Five Colleges is an independent, not-for-profit entity coordinated by an executive director and staff, drawing financial support from its member institutions and foundation grants, and operating collaborative faculty and student projects, including free transit throughout its service area. The Claremont Colleges in California, founded in 1925, brings together five independent but contiguous liberal arts colleges and two graduate institutions for collaborative business and academic services, most recently involving the development of an online cross-registration module in the five undergraduate colleges and better utilization of information technology across all seven institutions. The Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education (WICHE) works with fifteen member states in devising cooperative programs and conducting policy research that addresses the needs of students in its service area. These include a student exchange program at the undergraduate, graduate, and professional levels, a cooperative for educational telecommunications, and the Consortium for North American Higher Education Collaboration (CONAHEC).

Technology-planning consortia. Other examples of consortia engaged in strategic technology planning across entire regions are the Colleges of Worcester (Massachusetts) Consortium, the New Hampshire College and University Council, and the Consortium of Universities in the Washington Metropolitan Area. The Internet2 Project, a consortium of more than 100 universities, has as its mission cooperative development, operation, and technology transfer of advanced, network-based applications and network services in its member universities as well as internationally. A technology initiative in the greater Chicago area brings together public and private colleges and universities in the North Suburban Higher Education Consortium with museums, school districts, and historical societies. A faculty initiative of twelve of the Pennsylvania State University's academic colleges and its library system, and two historically black institutions, Cheyney and Lincoln Universities, are also engaged in designing and developing standards for quality distance education. Its guiding principles address learning goals and content presentation, teaching-learning interactions, assessment and evaluation criteria, instructional media and software tools, and the development of learner support systems and services. A national initiative, the Community of Agile Partners in Education (CAPE), includes 125 colleges, universities, school districts, medical schools and hospitals, and community-based organizations throughout the United States and abroad, providing training in pedagogical applications of videoconferencing, Internet use, and other technologies, and the sponsorship of interinstitutional cooperative faculty teaching and research projects.

Local business- and industry-linked consortia. Multinational as well as local businesses and industries are another catalyst for consortia development, often providing resources and expertise to influence university participation. One of the earliest examples is the Alliance for Higher Education, a Dallas, Texas-based consortium of thirty two-year and four-year colleges and research universities, corporations, hospitals, and other nonprofit organizations that link business and higher education through distance-education initiatives. Formed in 1965 as the Association for Graduate Education and Research (TAGER) by the cofounder of Texas Instruments, for the purpose of workforce training and economic development in the Dallas–Fort Worth region, it has enabled several thousand area engineers and other professionals to earn advanced degrees on-site through distance education. An education and information network facilitates interactive audio, video, and high-speed data transmission among member institutions and area employers, also fostering faculty consulting, workshops and seminars on corporate training needs and services, and, in 1994, a state-accredited multi-institutional teaching facility, the Universities Center of Dallas.

Research and academic library consortia. Research and academic libraries constitute another significant growth area in consortia development as library directors seek mechanisms for meeting user demand in gaining access to electronic databases and other sources of information. These consortia now engage in joint purchasing and referral services, online borrowing, high-speed delivery, the digitization of library holdings, and staff development. Evidence of this growth may be seen in the advent of the International Coalition of Library Consortia (ICOLC) in 1997, an informal, self-organized group comprising nearly 150 library consortia worldwide. ICOLC informs consortia about electronic resources and pricing practices of electronic providers and vendors, also providing guidelines for web-based resources and other services. Examples of library consortia include such statewide links as GALILEO in Georgia, PALCI in Pennsylvania, VIVA in Virginia, MIRACL in Missouri, and CLICNet in Minnesota. Multistate networks include SOLINET in the southeastern United States, CIC Virtual Electronic Network in the Midwest, CIRLA in the mid-Atlantic states, and the New England Land-Grant University Libraries. The transformation of library science academic degree programs into information sciences is accelerating with the introduction of high-speed retrieval of online documents, electronic books and journals, specialized databases in all academic fields, digitized manuscripts and photographs, interactive video transmission, and other such advances. As informational boundaries become more porous, libraries find it practical and trouble free to pool information, resources, and materials. Such issues as insurance, space, personnel, network compatibility, and cost sharing play important roles in determining the success of library and related consortia.

Scientific research and development consortia. Consortia for the purpose of scientific research and development bring together universities, research centers, government agencies, and multinational corporations engaged in supercomputing, geoscience, medical research, and other sophisticated research projects. Numerous examples may be found on the U.S. Department of Defense, Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, and National Aeronautic and Space Administration websites. A recent Department of Defense initiative is the Maui High Performance Computing Center, developed and managed by a consortium led by the University of New Mexico under a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Air Force's Phillips Laboratory. Its mission is "to create a world-class, national, high performance computing center, to foster technology exchange among the governmental, academic, and industrial communities …. " Its partner organizations include Carnegie Mellon University's Imaging Group, the Cornell Theory Center, the Maui Economic Development Board, and the IBM Corporation. A Coalition of Academic Supercomputing Centers provides another level of cooperation and resource sharing among university-based and autonomous centers for research and development in high-performance communications, enabling businesses and universities to be more cost effective in the allocation of resources and the development of new computer applications.


The consortium can be likened to an interorganizational network in which environmental conditions affect its activities. Numerous examples of informal partnerships and coalitions can be given, but in practice the formalized agreements of consortia offer structural opportunities of another dimension. A basic problem is the inconsistency between cooperation evolving from the inability to compete that runs counter to the free market model it seeks to protect. A study by Judith S. Glazer of consortia development in 1978 to 1980 showed that unrealistic expectations could make it difficult to sustain cooperative agreements despite presidential support and large infusions of foundation resources. Issues arising in efforts to establish a doctoral-level consortium in New York City included a lack of clarity in goal setting, perceived differences in the quality and commitment of participating programs, faculty resistance to cooperate in planning their own retrenchment, inadequate incentives for developing substantive agreements, and, above all, the fact that informal collegial networks of presidents, deans, or faculty are not easily transformed into a cohesive working group. The experiences of consortia directors and others engaged in the collaborative process indicate that policymakers and planners need to address the following: (1) the conflict between institutional autonomy and interdependence at a time when state regulatory agencies advocate greater accountability in the deployment of resources; (2) the need for incremental long-range planning rather than grandiose or large-scale schemes; (3) the central role of the full-time executive director and staff in administering consortia projects; (4) the need to distinguish between consortia, partnerships, networks, and other interinstitutional alliances; and (5) the importance of cooperating in areas of strength rather than weakness and in addressing the fundamental differences between government-sponsored and independent institutions. Among all else, the ideal consortium will be based on an understanding that organizational change in response to market shifts necessitates flexibility, long-range planning, and adequate resources among equal partners.


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