In tough economic times, higher education institutions must look outside their walls for help. In order to stay efficient and effective, they must turn to commercial vendors for assistance. While this may seem like a simple solution to some, many institutions are hesitant to form equitable partnerships with commercial vendors. Some institutions are hesitant because they feel they are giving up control of their products and processes to a stranger. Others believe they are veering away from longstanding traditions. The final fear some might have is that they are “selling out.”
Ownership and Control
Universities and colleges often struggle to give up ownership and control of processes, services and the final product. My colleagues claim that by giving up these controls, they are giving up the ability to maintain quality standards. They are afraid that vendors are constantly looking for opportunities to save money and do not care about the final product. In all honesty, the first part is probably true. Vendors do look at the bottom line. That is why institutions want the partnership in the first place. They want someone that can come in and do a better job for less. That is why institutions turn to software companies to get their registration and records databases. They employ food services companies to operate their cafeterias. They partner with publishing companies to supply their textbooks.
It has been my experience that vendors do wish to maintain high levels of quality. Their repetition and ability to grow their client base is dependent on it. Many times, the vendors are willing to operate behind the scenes and stay in contact with the institution on quality matters.
Another reason why some institutions are hesitant to pursue partnerships is it goes against long-held traditions. Higher education institutions have long prided themselves on being self-sufficient. They have been the masters of their own destinies and have not needed outside direction and support from non-educational entities. Academic leaders seldom think of managing a university or college like a business; therefore, they might not be comfortable allowing commercial business to take part in the decision-making process.
To me, that is not wise thinking. Often, the commercial vendors bring a global viewpoint to the table. They are aware of regional and national higher education trends. They can make sound business decisions without the fear of violating tradition. They seldom say, “That’s not how we always do it.” They usually provide a plan on how to meet shared goals.
Many vendors have backgrounds in higher education. They have either worked in higher education or have worked with institutions many years. They understand the need to keep traditions alive, while at the same time moving an institution ahead.
Some institutions see partnering with commercial vendors as “selling out.” They might believe that using vendors is a sign they have failed. Their faculty should be the leading experts in their respective fields and it would be perceived otherwise if they partnered with textbook companies or other commercial providers. They feel that “canned content” would lessen the quality of their students’ education. It has been my observation that this does not happen. The content provided is usually current and relevant. It is often used to supplement the institution’s own dynamic curriculum.
I have observed the opposition to higher education institutions partnering with commercial vendors for many reasons. Most of the time, those reasons lack true merit. They often come from fear and misunderstandings. Partnerships are not meant to lessen an institution. They are meant to strengthen its processes, practices and products. They are designed to be mutually beneficial to both parties and to be sustainable. With higher education institutes trying to do more with less, they must be willing to turn to commercial vendors for help.
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