Systems, Not Silos

Systems, Not Silos

Spring 2021

Stanley P. Rosenberg

The higher education landscape can sometimes resemble farmland: full of silos. Institutional silos develop wittingly or unwittingly for any number of reasons, like a desire to lighten the load for faculty. Christian colleges and universities may also be more prone to silos; after all, church history is full of examples of a predilection to separate and build silos.

But if silos are endemic to academia, they can also undermine research. Academic silos tend to contain and constrain thought rather than expand or enhance it. Research requires imagination, creativity, the ability to wonder and wander over new terrain, and the willingness to break outside of known boundaries to ask fresh and enriching questions. It also requires access to diverse resources. Silos inhibit both individual researchers, access to resources, and the formation of a rich, productive, and effective research culture on a campus.

Treating CCCU institutions only as like-minded peers and not as full collaborators can unduly limit us. In North America, the CCCU’s network of full- and part-time faculty is over 28,500 across a range of disciplines. Already, the CCCU broadens our collective resources through opportunities like Networking Grants for Christian Scholars and Supporting Structures. Perhaps we can expand this further and together embrace an opportunity to collaborate and share resources. New habits and technologies mastered amid COVID-19 make systemic responses plausible and imaginable, as these two examples show.

Systemic Support of Undergraduate Research

Undergraduate research is important: It attracts and forms students, makes curricula exciting, and offers lasting impact for both students and institutions. Many CCCU programs incorporate these opportunities, but their efforts can be hampered by the limits of size and scope.

Undergraduate research depends on scholars offering their research competence to train students. Large universities can support a wide variety of student interests. Most CCCU institutions, however, are not large. Thus their faculty’s range of expertise is smaller, presenting hard choices in developing student research opportunities: offer only a few; send students elsewhere for specific opportunities; or press faculty to provide guidance outside of their particular competence.

The first response limits opportunities and perhaps undermines enrollment. The second response — if the CCCU faculty is not part of the research — means students may not witness and work alongside deeply engaged Christians doing top-tier research. The third strategy limits the quality of the experience. It can imply a type of mediocrity, not because the faculty are mediocre but because they are advising outside of their area of competence. Institutionally, we are not setting them up to succeed. All three responses may also convey that the students cannot expect significantly informed research guidance from their faculty. This can be profoundly discouraging for faculty morale, unduly limiting to students, and damaging to long-term institutional health.

Thinking like a system provides a solution. Online tools present the medium for sharing resources by harnessing faculty from across CCCU membership to advise undergraduate researchers within their areas of competence. For example, a student at College A wishes to engage in research for which the faculty in the department lack particular competence. Acting within a broad CCCU system, a faculty member with the specific scholarly competence from College B can step in to offer additional, limited, informal research advising online (with the student’s college providing needed oversight, faculty of record, etc.).

Developing such a response requires an expansive view from faculty and administrators to recognize the availability of academic expertise outside their institution, a willingness to draw upon outside advisors, and enabling one’s own faculty to serve others. We can build a system for communicating and “trading” faculty competencies and student research needs. This isn’t merely a hypothetical example. A group of honors program directors and deans along with Scholarship & Christianity in Oxford (SCIO), the CCCU’s Oxford-based subsidiary, have ongoing discussions developing a project — URN, Undergraduate Research Network — that seeks to offer a way to fairly balance concerns and resources.

Open Access, Information Specialists, and a Library System

Open Access poses substantial opportunity and danger for small colleges as it changes the economic model of journal publishing from payment at point of use (e.g., buying journal subscriptions) to payment at the point of submission by the author (known as subventions, i.e., required payments, typically ranging between $500-$2000, but as much as $11,000). Originating in Europe but now emerging in North America, this approach might work for large institutions (though that is an open question), but it endangers smaller colleges’ ability to attract bright, young scholars if they lack funding for subventions.

There are systemic approaches that could assist in solving this challenge, such as developing a central matching fund for subventions. But for the moment, let me point to a pandemic-created opportunity. Open Access publishing has expanded to meet access needs for students by making many pay-to-use works freely available. Thus, a vast quantity of freely available, serious research material is accessible electronically.

However, navigating Open Access — both publishing and using it — is complex; so complex, in fact, that major university libraries have dedicated library staff with specialist knowledge in order to support faculty and students engaging Open Access. Many small institutions cannot do this alone, but by sharing library staff expertise across multiple campuses, they might accomplish more. Online meetings make this approach viable.

Some may recall Carl Henry’s vision in the 1950s to create a major Christian university. His efforts did not pan out. But we can now do something on a larger scale with the tools, technology, and an institution — the CCCU itself — that he lacked. We can provide the impact and benefits a major Christian university might offer by breaking down silos and working together as a system. In doing so, we can profoundly enrich our institutions’ research cultures and expand our range of offerings and impact.

Stanley P. Rosenberg is the CCCU’s vice president for research and scholarship and the executive director of SCIO: Scholarship & Christianity in Oxford, the CCCU’s U.K. subsidiary.