Co-ops and Universities: Seeking the Elusive Partnership

Part 3: The Faculty Dilemma

Brett Fairbairn, with Nora Russell

Part 2 of this post, “Viable Partnerships,” looked at how co-ops might work with universities and suggested three possibilities: the three I’s — the Individual, Incentive, and Institutionalizing approaches. How does it look from the other side? If you are a faculty member inside a university, what are your options for how to engage the co-op sector?

Where the co-op’s problem is how to influence the behaviour of the faculty, the faculty member’s problem is how to access resources to enable different behaviour on the part of faculty and students. There are a variety of solutions to this problem.

Faculty members enjoy considerable autonomy compared to most employees of most organizations. If they so choose, they can allocate their own time — a costly and scarce resource — to co-operatives. This is what I would call the faculty resource solution. Little authorization is required as long as the faculty member’s choices have minimal impact on what the department perceives as its teaching and research obligations.

The most common problem is teaching. Most faculty dream of creating unique courses tailored to their personal interests, but are rarely free to do so. Instead, they are called upon to teach a rotation of junior, senior, and graduate courses in core topics of their discipline. Required courses need to be offered; degrees need to be awarded to meet the objectives of students, parents, and the state, among others. There are program accreditation requirements to consider, as well as university standards to meet.

Research could also be an issue, particularly the close identification of university-level research with the requirement for peer-reviewed publication. It takes exceptionally clever packaging to make a subject related to co-operatives appeal to one of the disciplinary journals that meets the standards of the academy.

Faculty members can escape these limitations to certain degrees if they are able to bring in additional resources from outside the university that can support them in their teaching or research roles. With more resources, faculty members can get more of what they want (different kinds of teaching or more fulfilling research) while also doing what a partner wants.

A special case is when faculty members seek additional resources from academic agencies or foundations and direct them towards co-operative topics. Logically, co-ops should laud such work, although unless they were partners in the grant applications, the work may not address their most important concerns. Regrettably, this type of funding is limited and many faculty members face low overall probabilities of success.

In the absence of grants from agencies or foundations, faculty may seek funding from external partners such as co-ops. These deals can take various forms, but I will generalize and refer to them as fee-for-service relationships. The faculty member may do contract research or may teach in a special certificate program; the key is that the activity brings in new resources that free up the faculty member’s time and/or improve their productivity. Thus, the co-op’s work may get done in addition to that of the university and the faculty member. It takes entrepreneurial faculty members to work their way through this kind of system and recognize how taking on new obligations and resources can help them realize personal objectives more fully down the road.

Contractual relationships involve problems for co-ops (such as vulnerability to information asymmetry and costs of contracts and monitoring) as well as for faculty members. Most faculty do not like administration, and many are not good at being entrepreneurial. So, while they would like access to increased resources, many are put off by the complications involved. They would rather operate on their own time, doing what they like best, than take on reporting obligations and deadlines. Many would experience working for fees or grants as a distraction — a kind of mission drift.

It may seem paradoxical that people put their best efforts into things that bring no extra resources, while treating resource-generating activities as marginal. I would argue, nevertheless, that this is a common feature in academic culture, and that contractual-service relationships will work well for certain faculty but rarely be a basis for sustained, high-quality collaborations.

What remains? Well, the ideal for faculty who are so inclined is to align permanent funding with what they most want to do — to capture enough resources from inside or outside the university that they can work on co-ops without worrying overly about contracts and fees. If there is a permanent structure dedicated to working with co-ops and supporting the work of faculty, and if this structure has its base budget covered independently, then the individual can research and teach and disseminate knowledge freely. The interests of both the faculty member and the co-ops are aligned through culture, norms, and interactions in a long-term structure, not by specific contracts. I would characterize this option as giving away knowledge for free.

Naturally, the option is not free in a larger sense. Those who allocate resources within the university have to be persuaded to re-allocate them; co-ops have to be persuaded to provide resources; or more likely, one sort of commitment is used to leverage the other. Co-ops and the public and students and parents and others are thus paying for the work, but this leaves the faculty member free to concentrate on the research and teaching, not revenue generation.

In such a relationship, long-term resources can be used to leverage the hiring of more faculty, to provide scholarships, assistantships, and staff who make faculty members more productive, and to cover the direct costs of teaching and research, much as a fee-oriented option but with more long-term stability.

There are drawbacks, to be sure. Stability could cause both sets of partners — co-ops and faculty — to take their mutual commitments for granted. These commitments would need to be periodically renewed and supported by lasting norms and expectations of each other.

So, for faculty, partnership options are three: to employ faculty resources only; to augment with fee activities; or to work “for free” within a core budget that is covered by long-term arrangements. I will call these the three F’s of faculty partnership strategy: Faculty, Fee, or Free.

The final blog post in this series will match up the I’s and F’s to create some IF’s.

Brett Fairbairn

Nora Russell

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