The Upstate New York College Collaboration, of which Hobart and William Smith Colleges are a member, was recently featured in the Rochester Business Journal. The article explains, “A new confederation of local colleges and universities is exploring more and larger areas in which they can share services or consolidate.” The article notes that the group is also working with the New York Six, which was established three years ago; HWS is a founding member of the New York Six.
“So far the New York Six has negotiated a student group health insurance program so campuses can offer better coverage at more competitive rates, said Amy Cronin, the dedicated director of the New York Six who carries the title special assistant to the presidents. It also has locked into property insurance and joint purchasing on things like custodial supplies,” the article says.
Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the consortium facilitates collaboration among its member institutions in fulfilling their educational missions and serving the public good. Through the sharing of expertise and resources, the consortium enhances opportunities for students, faculty, and staff, while reducing colleges’ individual and collective operating and capital costs.
The full article follows.
Rochester Business Journal
Upstate Colleges Collaborating to Cut Costs
Educational institutions look for areas where they can share or consolidate
Nate Dougherty • July 13, 2012
St. John Fisher College and Nazareth College of Rochester are separated by only a few miles across a thin stretch of road, so for officials at both schools it made sense that they come together when looking for a wireless provider.
By bidding jointly, the colleges were able to get a better price, saving money for each. Though the project was a small collaboration and the savings negligible to the total budgets of each institution, the partnership signals a growing trend of collaboration among area colleges.
A new confederation of local colleges and universities is exploring more and larger areas in which they can share services or consolidate. They are trying to emulate some more established college consortiums such as Five Colleges Inc. in Massachusetts, joining a trend of lowering the costs of higher education by working together.
“This is an effort by which colleges and universities are looking to better serve the community,” said Margaret Ferber, vice president of finance and treasurer at Nazareth College and a leader of the collaboration. “This is something that will help not only our customers but the regional community.”
The upstate New York College Collaboration takes some members from the existing Rochester Area Colleges, a 19-member group that stretches throughout the region. But the new organization pushes the boundaries, involving schools outside the immediate area such as SUNY College at Fredonia and Le Moyne College near Syracuse.
Member institutions have been sending financial officers to regular meetings, and the institutions have signed a memorandum of understanding committing to “be better together.” The group is starting small, working mostly on projects within the financial and administrative areas, but its members see room to grow into a larger effort.
At the latest meeting were 12 institutions that signed the memorandum and another six that are close to signing but already participating. In all there will be 15-20 members, Ferber said.
“There are so many ways we can help one another and the higher education community more by being more efficient and more effectively deploying resources,” she said. “Some of the activities are driven by efficiency, but it’s not strictly about cutting costs. We also want to improve student life and enrichment.”
Each institution is making modest contributions to the organization’s startup costs, Ferber said. Once up and running, the group will be able to take on larger projects that have benefits across many of the organizations.
“Once everyone is signed on we will have something like 10,000 faculty members and 50,000 undergraduate students between us, and we believe that critical mass gives us greater leverage to explore opportunities,” Ferber said. “When we combine intellectual resources, whether administrative or faculty, we have the combined strength of many of the largest universities in the Nation.”
Like the wireless collaboration between Nazareth and St. John Fisher, the consortium is staring small and focusing on the most obvious connections, Ferber said.
One area that jumps out is the colleges’ retirement plans, she said. New regulations require colleges to have individual investment committees for 403 (b) plans, even if they work with a larger company like TIAA-CREF on investments. Ferber said the colleges could come together as a group to look at these investments with a common committee.
“We have to look at all of it and each fund to see whether it’s adequately diversified, look at the fees they’re charging and see if they’re responsible for that type of fund,” she said. “This is something we could look at doing together.”
Members of the Upstate New York College Collaboration also have been working with another area consortium, the New York Six, which started three years ago. This group contains Colgate University, Hamilton College, Skidmore College, St. Lawrence University, Union College, and Hobart William Smith Colleges. The last also belongs to the upstate New York College Collaboration.
The institutions in the New York Six were receiving grants individually from the Mellon Foundation, which encouraged them to look at some projects they could complete together. That group similarly is taking a deliberate approach to the projects it investigates among institutions.
So far the New York Six has negotiated a student group health insurance program so campuses can offer better coverage at more competitive rates, said Amy Cronin, the dedicated director of the New York Six who carries the title special assistant to the presidents. It also has locked into property insurance and joint purchasing on things like custodial supplies.
The slow approach is important as the colleges and universities search for the most efficient projects and learn how to best work with one another, she said.
“That’s part of the exercise, going through these things in a rather deliberate fashion so we can get a handle on where we stand and whether these things are worth the additional time and effort,” Cronin said.
Achieving some of the early, simpler objectives could be key to the success of the upstate New York College Collaboration, Ferber said.
“We’re walking before we can run,” she said. “Enacting change at one institution can be challenging enough, but trying to enact change across an array of institutions is more and more challenging. If we undertook a grand project right out of the gate and failed, people would look at this and say the collaboration doesn’t work.”
The early projects and meetings are also a way to build relationships and trust across universities and colleges that may have not worked closely in the past, Ferber said. Although the Rochester Area Colleges group has existed for more than 40 years, most of the members have not worked on large-scale collaborative projects.
Members of the Upstate New York College Collaboration have been meeting since early 2010, when Ferber, St. John Fisher vice president for finance Thomas O’Neil and SUNY College at Brockport’s Louis Spiro, recently retired vice president for administration and finance, met to discuss the idea of consortium.
Future collaborations will call for IT directors, human resources directors and administers across the colleges and universities, Ferber noted.
The institutions also have to learn their capacities and limitations, she added. The relationships and projects state university campuses can undertake, for example, are strictly controlled by the SUNY system.
Even with some of the challenges of the consortium, the economic situation these institutions face ensures a future involving at least some kind of cost reduction and shared services, Ferber said.
“We’re gaining momentum and energy as we move forward, and that’s aided by the economic challenges we all face,” she said. “Many students and families are not in the position to pay the increasing tuition costs, and we have an obligation to constrain costs and to effectively deliver more services. We all have a shared sense of urgency around moving forward.”
Five Colleges, a western Massachusetts group that has been working together for decades, serves as a bit of inspiration for what is possible. These colleges share functions such as IT and in some cases security services. They also have common faculty appointments in foreign languages.
“We hope to be able to expand into things like joint library services and maybe even sharing faculty at some level too,” O’Neil said.
The New York Six sees a similar future, one that stretches beyond projects aimed at efficiency to ones that enhance student life and academic offerings.
“The deans of students are talking about things they can do jointly for leadership development or staff development,” Cronin said. “I think we’ll start to move in those directions more significantly, and we’ll continue to explore technology and ways it can be brought into the classrooms to bridge the campuses over time.”
The projects may not involve all members of the consortium, O’Neil noted. The group allows members to work together on areas determined by common interests or proximity, he said. Already St. John Fisher and Nazareth are exploring further ways to expand their partnership.
“The next big thing is looking at waste management and food service,” he said.
As projects grow larger and more complex, the collaboration will eventually need dedicated staff like the New York Six has, Ferber said. This does not necessarily mean hiring an outside director, but it could have the members designating a person to work for the consortium for a year or so at a time.
“These groups work best with dedicated staff, but you can also do that by giving someone a year’s release from their existing job at one of the colleges,” Ferber said. “Or it could be a combination of dedicated staff from institutions and graduate students as well.”
The consortium has been looking at recently retired financial officers of local colleges and universities and has begun to appoint roles of president and vice presidents within the group, Ferber said.
Becoming the Norm
Once a rarity among institutions, this kind of consortium has grown more common in recent years due to intensifying economic pressures, Ferber said. And as they grow, these groups are becoming more specialized.
“There are dozens of these all over the country and they’re gaining speed,” Ferber said. “There is one in Virginia with 12 members that does nothing but run a particular software program.”
New partnerships are cropping up continually. Cronin noted that she has been in discussion with a group of schools from the Pacific Northwest that receive Mellon Foundation funding and are coming together in the same way as the New York Six.
Sharing academic programs is becoming increasingly common. Nazareth has been working with the New American Colleges and Universities, a group of 19 small and midsize liberal arts colleges, on a program to share online courses across all member institutions.
Collaborations in the future could involve more than just colleges and universities, Cronin said. Sharing services to cut costs has become a trend among municipalities, and there are many projects higher education institutions could undertake with these groups.
“There are a lot of consortial purchasing projects where groups of school districts are coming together to buy supplies, and that’s something we could be involved in too,” Cronin said.
These groups will be a good partner for colleges and universities because they all face the same pressures, she said.
“Everyone is under the gun to contain costs,” she said. “These types of things will only continue to grow.”