Most people come into higher education with great intentions. Faculty and staff truly want what’s best for their students and their departments, yet they don’t know how that affects other departments or the institution as a whole. Those good intentions, unfortunately, are too often constrained by the silos of higher education.
These silos are pervasive, much to the detriment of universities, faculty members, and students. But as entrenched as they might seem, we can tear them down. With a clear culture, a shared set of priorities, and a focus on higher objectives, it’s possible for once-siloed departments to work together and embrace a more holistic approach.
Why Silos Are Worse Than Ever
Silos develop when too many people seek the same scarce resources for their own objectives. In the past decade, higher education funding in the U.S. has fallen well below where it was a decade ago.
In 2017, states spent $9 billion less on higher education than they did in 2008. That resulted in 44% less money spent per student, on average. Institutions have worked to offset these reductions by increasing tuition, but they’ve also been forced to cut funding, lay off faculty members, and reduce academic opportunities.
As budget requests travel up the leadership chain in this funding-scarce environment, departments feel a need to protect their turf. Those territorial instincts mean departments and offices are not sharing ideas or resources. Over time, that can even lead to a duplication of efforts — effectively wasting already scarce resources.
By their nature, universities and colleges have a top-down, bureaucratic culture. This structure naturally stifles teamwork and collaboration. It’s natural for each department or group to want to grow successfully in its own right.
When there is a lack of collaboration in higher education, it’s the students who pay the price. If there isn’t collaboration, beneficial programs struggle to make progress.
When we tear silos down, everybody benefits — especially students. Once collaborative efforts transcend previously impenetrable walls, incredible innovation is possible. Here are five strategies educators can use to encourage more cooperation, sharing, and trust:
1. Build strategic plans around a singular goal.
Many university systems have long-winded yet well-intentioned mission statements. It’s nice in theory to stand for numerous priorities, but being pulled in many directions can actually fuel the development of silos. When you have the opportunity to strategize, base your plan on a simple, unified goal that everyone involved can get behind.
At the University of Missouri-St. Louis, we focused our strategic planning on a single idea: We transform lives. We assigned a task force to create trust and align priorities among different silos. The task force members used that simple mission to consolidate efforts, unify goals, and share resources to achieve the most efficient, useful ends.
2. Lean on task forces and committees to tackle common problems.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen solutions stalled for years in endless debate and red tape. On bureaucratic campuses, it’s typical for projects and ideas to face delays while people work to gather the necessary permissions and check marks. We don’t serve students when solutions stall out.
Interdisciplinary, goal-oriented groups are excellent resources for breaking down barriers. They can dislodge top-down practices — if these groups are given the proper authority to act. The key is to align the group’s goals around a single concept, as discussed in the previous step.
What’s even better about these multicampus or interdisciplinary groups is that they will help faculty, staff, and administrators build connections with people beyond their normal spheres of influence. If everyone commits to the mission, positive momentum is inevitable.
In one such meeting I attended, a representative from a neighboring campus offered leftover training money to cover a budget gap on our campus. He did it because we were committed to establishing trust and building bridges between our groups. We had each other’s backs in our united mission.
3. Demand face-to-face meetings.
Emails don’t build trust; use face-to-face meetings to foster and grow relationships. Gather important folks from across campus systems, departments, and campus groups in one room and watch as incredible things happen. When possible, demand in-person meetings so those vital relationships can begin to form.
To spark connections, host a conversation starter at every meeting to remind the stakeholders why they’re there. Go around the table and have everyone share a piece of good news to set a positive tone and emphasize that everyone is gathered to create better results — not complain.
4. Create a culture where the best idea wins.
When tackling an initiative, build a solutions-oriented culture where titles don’t matter. A collaborative, egoless culture is imperative to build successful connections across boundaries. The best ideas should rise to the top — not only suggestions from people who have the most impressive titles.
It will take a concerted effort to loosen hierarchal instincts among the people in the room. Your meetings should give everyone a chance to contribute, regardless of rank. Perhaps you could give each person a chance to speak at the beginning of the meeting, asking everyone to share a piece of good news or progress toward the shared goal. Limit every person to 30 seconds or a minute to encourage the idea that everyone is on a level playing field.
Once the tone is set, encourage collaboration through brainstorming activities or asking for input. Create a contest where interdisciplinary subgroups come up with different solutions and the entire group votes on the best ideas.
5. Assume a bias toward action.
Another way to create a solutions-oriented culture is to assume a bias toward action instead of deliberation. It’s not enough to come up with great ideas; you then have to put them into practice.
Adopt an entrepreneurial mindset that seeks the leanest and most efficient way to achieve your goals. Successful entrepreneurs always keep their customers in mind, which can be an equally effective approach in academia. In this case, your customers are the students you serve.
To encourage action-oriented mindsets, write strict and actionable agendas for your meetings. Provide specific time allocations for each item, and hold everyone accountable to that schedule. Create a sense of ownership by being clear with action steps, deadlines, and responsibilities. End each meeting by having team members share their next action steps and when they hope to accomplish them.
While silos might be common on many campuses, they don’t have to be a permanent fixture of university culture. Tearing down these walls will open your institution up to a new level of collaboration — fulfilling everyone’s best intentions in the process.
Dan Lauer is the founding executive director of UMSL Accelerate, an initiative that fosters innovation and entrepreneurship in and outside the classroom and helps bring concepts from mind to market. Dan is a successful entrepreneur who’s founded multiple companies, including Lauer Toys Inc., best known for the Waterbabies® line, which has enjoyed 27 years of continuous distribution and sold 24 million units. Through UMSL Accelerate, he serves as a catalyst for developing a vibrant ecosystem of students, faculty, and community members to inspire innovation and advocate for entrepreneurship.