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Higher Education's Secret Sauce: Cooperation and Collaboration

Donald Z. Spicer, AVC and CIO, University System of Maryland
Donald Z. Spicer, AVC and CIO, University System of Maryland

Donald Z. Spicer, AVC and CIO, University System of Maryland

Given the competitive orientation of most corporations, the ability to cooperate and/or collaborate is limited to close partners and suppliers. While higher education institutions compete for students, faculty, and research grants, the overall environment in this sector might be viewed as “coopetition.” Institutions compete where necessary, but there is a strong element of cooperating and collaborating in areas that support, but do not directly impact their mission activities. This is particularly evident in Information Technology (IT). This article will describe several of these initiatives, some of which could be beneficial in other contexts.

Technology Cooperation and Collaboration in Higher Education

Starting at the lowest level of the technology stack, networking, higher education was the original context for the development and promotion of the Internet. For many years, the Internet was a network of regional higher education networks. Twenty years ago, as the commodity Internet was gaining non-educational attention, higher education created a next generation Internet, Internet2, to support high bandwidth research, network based research, and collaboration among its member subscribers. As even high-performance networking has become a commodity, Internet2 has added above the network services—commercial and shared member to member—to its portfolio. This is also articulated at the state/regional level. Maryland has created the Maryland Research and Education Network that provides Internet2 access to K20 education other than direct Internet2 members in Maryland. Other states have similar organizations. Maryland has also created an “above the network services” sharing organization. 

Security is another area where there is no competitive advantage in going it alone, but there are clear benefits in cooperation. Many educational entities have a very small staff dedicated to IT security. They must deal with the same threats as other enterprises, with the additional concern about knowledgeable student insiders. Most educational CISOs are heads-down and overwhelmed. Cooperation allows joint awareness of a fluid environment, common policy development, sharing of threats and alerts, and leveraged purchase of tools.

  ​Institutions compete where necessary, but there is a strong element of cooperating and collaborating in areas that support, but do not directly impact their mission activities  

Moving up the stack, higher education has contributed to a wide variety of open source developments: BSD and Linux at the operating system level; learning management systems such as Moodle and Sakai; several software clearing houses; and the federated Identity Management System, Shibboleth/InCommon. At the application level, while higher education licenses a substantial amount of commercial software, it has also engaged in what is termed “Community Sourcing” applications, with the Kuali Foundation’s ERP applications being a prime example. These generally are developed under the rubric, “by education, for education.”

In other domains, High Performance Computing (HPC), while becoming relatively more accessible, has long had shared resource aspects. While often funded by the National Science Foundation, states, or regional consortia, organizations managing HPC generally have a shared governance management model. In the domain of content, there are many shared governance higher education library consortia at the state level, and HathiTrustis a national collaboration that archives and shares digitized collections. A new movement in the content area is of Open Educational Resources, which is a movement to share public domain and open license materials in lieu of using textbooks. Finally, there are several consortial efforts to establish repositories to manage electronic resources of all kinds, ranging from data to documents to multi-media collections.

Why do Higher Education Institutions engage in these Activities?

One can answer this from a couple of perspectives. On the one hand, education is inherently an activity that involves sharing and collaboration. This is true in teaching and learning and especially true in research, where multiple perspectives make the whole more than the sum of the parts. Thus, those IT professionals who came up the ladder from within higher education have this perspective in their bones.

More important recently, financial necessity is driving institutions to look for more efficient ways to provide services. IT is a perfect domain to develop this efficiency. No one comes to an institution based on the quality of its IT services, though some may leave if these services are deficient. While it may be hard to share physical components of an educational institution, digital components are much more easily shared and consortially developed. 

Support and Sustainability

While higher education seems to be creative at developing a wide-range of shared activities, for production services one expects support and sustainability. Many of the services above do not have large support requirements. For those that do, larger institutions develop internal support organizations for critical services. Also, in some cases commercial consultants seize the opportunity to provide support as a service. 

Sustainability is a more serious issue. Often a cooperative activity develops due to the vision and energy of a relatively small group of leaders. When they move on, the momentum may dissipate. Thus, institutions have a multi-faceted risk management decision to make in deciding to join a cooperative activity that might require internal support and may or may not persist long enough to gain ROI. This said, many IT decisions in every sector have to consider similar factors. 


Higher education has a different ethos and bottom-line than many other industries.   Additionally, for many services a culture of “good enough” rather than “someone is going to get fired if this fails” encourages development of things that meet a need but may not be of commercial quality.

A complementary perspective is to observe that higher education has long helped develop and support standards rather than proprietary approaches. Standards facilitate IT cooperation. While there is an on-going tension in many product areas between standards and proprietary approaches, standards seem to be gaining more adherents.  

So, where is the broad benefit in cooperation? Certainly, security falls into this category, and there is a realization by governments and enterprises everywhere that going it alone is a recipe for disaster.

Finally, higher education has benefitted greatly by establishing and maintaining private wide-area-networks at the state, regional, and national levels. These allow participating institutions to share commodity ISP services, have scalable bandwidth with a relatively fixed price over time, share network based services, and have better control over security.

Bottom Line

Readers will ask, “What are the outcomes that provide ROI for the overhead and loss of control involved in cooperative and collaborative initiatives?” The 12 institutions of the University System of Maryland may provide some insight. By providing intra-institutional private networking with shared redundant ISP services and shared internal network based services, these institutions, and others in Maryland, save approximately $2 million per year. The shared academic library services in Maryland estimate that $8 million per year is saved, in addition to substantial effectiveness benefits from having what appears to many as one library. Finally, education in Maryland has created an organization that facilitates highly leveraged contracts for IT products and services. This activity saves at least $30 million per year to its members.

Thus, higher education has a long history of benefitting from IT cooperation and collaboration.  A variety of effectiveness and efficiency drivers will likely encourage an increase in such activities—statewide, regionally, and nationally.

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