Why peer/partner relationships matter
As one of the world’s leading public research university systems, the University of California has 10 campuses, five medical centers, three national labs, and a network of agricultural and natural research centers. All told, the UC system includes more than 280,000 students and two million alumni living all around the world.
Ask Justin Sullivan and he will tell you that on any given day, UC can get congested—really congested. As Director of Strategic Sourcing, it is Sullivan’s responsibility to help coordinate the strategic sourcing pipeline process for each campus. The crux of his job is to manage—transform, really—UC’s strategic sourcing capabilities system-wide.
The job requires the ability to identify and maintain a series of relationships with myriad partners that can get the job done. “Higher education offers so many doors if you’re willing to open them,” Sullivan says. “Our suppliers are looking for ways to engage with our campuses, and we’re constantly looking to learn about what’s going on beyond the University of California.”
Back to the aforementioned congested campus reference, Sullivan recalls a recent conundrum at the San Francisco and San Diego campuses. Both were having trouble accommodating the number of delivery vehicles on campus—a process that involves competing with campus visitors, students and staff, and, in the case of the San Francisco campus, patients.
Enter UC CPOs Jim Hine (San Francisco) and Ted Johnson (San Diego). Working with their respective teams, they met with the suppliers to develop a program to stage deliveries at off-site warehouses and have the university staff consolidate the shipments into single daily campus deliveries.
“That took extremely close collaboration between the suppliers and ops teams at both campuses to get the model right and build a level of trust that they could integrate operations,” Sullivan says. “It created a ‘win-win’ on cost and continues to meet customer expectations on campus together. Taking those trucks off the road makes our campuses and their surrounding neighborhoods more pleasant, safer and more sustainable.”
Sullivan says the secret to the success behind building partnerships is simple: You must understand your university, what it values, and then find the opportunities to expose suppliers to it. “The passion of your students, faculty and staff will be contagious, especially if you invite them into the process. It will help you identify the types of authentic engagement that can be successful. Think about what you will bring to the partnership, listen to what your partners value and want to accomplish, and be prepared to help them build the campus relationships that are needed to get it done.”
Breaking down the silos
Steven Pearlman believes that in today’s fast-paced, networked world, educational institutions that function as silos do so at their own peril. The co-founder of The Critical Thinking Initiative says that organizations operating outside of academia’s curricula structures and governance systems often can serve as more agile indicators of educational and real-world trends.
Working with partners in the community who might hold different, yet valuable perspectives, and who might press for innovation, can at the very least inform, if not directly improve academia’s mission, says Pearlman, Ph.D., who also is author of “America’s Critical Thinking Crisis: The Failure and Promise of Education.”
One of the two biggest driving forces behind the call for more peer-partner relationships is the pandemic and state of social unrest that continues to seize the country at every turn. “As someone working with educators across the disciplines and across the country, there’s no question that educators are working harder today just to keep their heads above water,” Pearlman says. “Strong relationships with forward-thinking organizations can help provide resources educators need, but lack the time to develop themselves.”
Pearlman believes that alliances can serve deeper purposes when organizations become attuned to the needs of each individual institution. Rather than cookie-cutter connections, deeper partner alliances attend to an institution’s academic needs from the classroom level through long-term strategic plans. “When partnerships emerge in concert with strategic planning rather than in service to existing plans, it enables institutions to create an infrastructure for success.”
Located on 115 acres of hilly, wooded land in Rock Island, Illinois, Augustana College enrolls some 2,500 students. The private Lutheran liberal arts and sciences college ranks among the Top 40 in the sciences based on the number of graduates earning PhDs.
It is this commitment to excellence that Kirk Anderson, Augustana College’s CFO, says the university strives for in every facet of its being. Part of that strategy entails reaching out across the aisle, so to speak, to other universities—and suppliers and partners—to see how they deal with everyday administrative pains and gains.
“There are so many ideas out there for resolving problems,” Anderson says. “Many institutions have the same problems and have approached them in different ways. We like to hear about how those solutions worked or didn’t work.”
During the pandemic, Augustana made it a stronger priority to develop deeper alliances with its vendors and suppliers, which Anderson says tend to have a better understanding of the university’s needs and strategic goals. By taking advantage of these relationships, Anderson says a university can create an extension to its current support staff.
“Sometimes suppliers have the time or network to find supply when it would take a college much longer to research,” Anderson says. “An example may be the availability of masks and cleaning supplies. During the pandemic, our suppliers have been able to give us an idea of how to get materials and how to get them quickly.”
During the pandemic, the relationship that the University of California forged with its IT suppliers was invaluable. Working together, UC was able to equip campus staff for remote work and video conferencing—getting the devices and internet connections into the hands of students who needed them.
“When we developed our video conferencing agreement, we never imagined that it would be supporting a remote workforce,” Sullivan says. “While it became the critical platform it has been for instruction and engagement, it was there and ready and overall it worked.”
In the end, alliances show the commitment that a university and supplier share to meeting the school’s overall mission. It gives both the opportunity to activate students and staff to participate in programs that a price sheet never can.
“The funding environment for public universities has never been tougher and these partnerships can make a real difference in what we’re able to accomplish,” Sullivan says. “We all want to be a part of something special, and developing new knowledge and the next generation of leaders is really motivating. If we invite our suppliers to participate in that they feel that commitment and it filters into everything we do together.”
Stronger together is a strategy that needs no convincing—just action.