Co-ops and Universities: Seeking the Elusive Partnership

Part 2: Viable Partnerships

Brett Fairbairn, with Nora Russell

Clearly, there are important reasons for co-ops and universities to be interested in each other. But while they can be aligned, they can never be, or remain, perfectly aligned. The demands of co-operatives to demonstrate a value proposition — to justify the commitment of resources to an education initiative in competition with returning greater short-term benefits to members — are impossible to satisfy fully. There will always be a tension. The questions within the academy are equally unanswerable — whether the same resources contributed to another undertaking would create more peer-reviewed publications, more prestigious grants, more reputational impact, than contributing faculty, staff, and student time to work with and on co-operatives. Both co-ops and universities face competing claims on time and resources.

Universities can be difficult partners. As organizations, they are notoriously inward-looking. Faculty have academic freedom and pursue their own concerns, and universities are jaw-droppingly expensive to operate.

And what about co-ops? Why might universities have difficulty partnering with them? For one thing, co-ops are obscure — they are not in the mainstream like for-profit businesses or governments. And doing work on co-ops competes with other choices and responsibilities. The lives of faculty are complex, with multiple functions entwined within each position — teaching, research, and administration. Faculty also have to meet the expectations of their profession, which include publishing in peer-reviewed academic formats and teaching in university-credit degree programs. To get even a small slice of a faculty member’s time, you probably also have to help the individual achieve outputs that are not so important to the co-op, such as peer-reviewed grants and publications.

So, how can co-ops work with universities? Here are some ideas. Let’s call them the three I’s: The Individual, Incentive, and Institutionalizing approaches.

First, co-ops could pursue networks of contacts to find individual faculty members who — by reason of character or prior experience — are already inclined to work with and on co-operatives. This is the Individual-Focused Strategy. Its advantage is that it works with the willing, so it does not have to concern itself with motivation. But as experience has shown, such faculty members are rare and their distribution by geography, institution, and discipline may bear little relation to what co-ops are interested in. Since co-ops are not a key focus in any mainstream university, faculty will only be interested in them tangentially — because they relate to some other topic. The result is a perennial mismatch, a bit like a dance where the partners know different steps.

There are clearly divergences that make it difficult for co-ops and academics to connect organically and spontaneously. Co-ops with resources, looking for partners, may not share the language, perspective, or concerns of the faculty and students drawn to studying co-operatives. So, while they can undoubtedly learn a lot from each other, both sides need to develop their intercultural competencies before this can happen. And despite its limitations, the individual approach is the one that prevails in most countries and regions of the world. This is why it is rare to find faculty members or students in mainstream universities working on co-op topics.

So what else to do? A second approach might be to Incentivize a different behaviour — offer a reward for faculty members to be interested in the concerns of co-ops. In the academic world, a reward is more likely about offering opportunity or status than about money. An incentive would be something like a research grant, access to a rare data set, an opportunity for students to gain experience, etc. The key is that you can’t usually just pay academics to do what you want; you also have to help them get what they want. So your incentive has to give them, for example, the ability to publish in academic outlets, in addition to whatever your co-op may do with knowledge that is assembled or created.

Incentives have the advantage of leveraging desired behaviour with one-time outlays, and they promise clearly defined outcomes. But beware of excessive expectations. Most faculty are doing many jobs at once, and in taking on an extra one, may do the minimum they think is necessary to satisfy you. If it is only a one-time, short-term contract, their heart and soul may not be in it. A better strategy is to provide larger, repeated, and longer-term incentives, which would help develop a relationship within which trust and a mutual sense of obligation could ensue.

If incentives are not enough, what else is there? A third option would be to carry to its logical conclusion the idea of repeated, long-term commitments. This is Institutionalization — the creation of a durable structure inside the university involving permanent university resources and co-op resources, with joint goals and a dual mission — a hybrid structure that embodies both university and co-op objectives. An endowed or annually funded chair is a half-way step between incentivizing and institutionalizing. The full version would be a centre or institute involving multiple faculty members and potentially multiple disciplines, which would create sufficient critical mass to remain focused on its mission.

A permanent structure would align the interests of the co-ops and the faculty in a voluntary but fairly binding way. The advantages are clear: Faculty members have long-term interest as well as long-term means to satisfy and reconcile differing obligations to their peers and to society/co-operatives. The disadvantages are cost and permanence. Given competitive pressures on co-ops and universities, they will probably commit to few such relationships across Canada.

This post has examined the three I’s of potential co-op engagement with the university — Individual, Incentive, and Institutionalizing. The next post in this series will look at the three F’s — Faculty, Fee, and Free — to see how faculty members might usefully involve themselves with the co-op sector. The final post will look at a few IF’s.

Brett Fairbairn

Nora Russell