Few notes on institutional partnerships

Partnerships are about building relationships and relationships are not built over night.” These are strong words from Martha Denny of Colorado State University, Director Emerita of International Education, speaking at the recently held NAFSA (Association of International Educators) conference in Denver. Martha’s remark about partnerships is one good insight into the very notion of establishing partnerships among institutions – it is a process that involves a number of explanations.

One important area that requires partnerships is education. Partnerships are crucial and inevitable in education; it cannot deliver much without it. Even when that inevitability is apparent, some tend to consider it a luxury that we can operate and function without, while in reality, particularly in the education business partnership remains fundamentally important.

Partnerships are the fabrics of any endeavor in the education sector enhancing its effectiveness from curriculum development in some schools to global mega research programs. Partnerships among higher education institutions are the fabrics of building a stronger and meaningful educational system. Any endeavor in the education sector demands that. What appears to be a puzzle for an institution could be the least of worries to another. Partnerships among higher education institutions could be translated through various ways.

The story of a diamond is a very good example to explain this point further. A professor went to her class with a diamond, and asked her student what the color of the diamond was. Some said, it was black and blue; others disagreed and said it was red and purple and silver. Still others shouted other colors that they saw on the diamond. In the process, the class became chaotic. The professor appealed for attention and calmly noted that all of them were correct but incomplete. She reminded them that they need to look at the diamond from the other side, and they would certainly be able to see the colors that their friends had seen. So, most of the things that we disagree in life can be a matter perspective. Like the students in the above class, our perspectives about issues might be limited by location, resources, experience, expertise, etc. Successful and effective partnerships will help us bring different perspectives together, and in the process, we will have a better understanding and explanation about the world we live in.

Addis Ababa University approaches partnership with a clear vision and purpose. The communities we live in and serve, and the globe at large, are facing multifaceted problems that need intellectual interventions. Problems such as climate change, human and drug trafficking, infectious diseases, terrorism, and beyond demand collective work and coordinated effort. They cannot be tackled through individual efforts and globally coordinated efforts are a must.

 Partnerships are viable means to create such coordinated efforts. Addis Ababa University aggressively works to build partnership with other institutions with the understanding of building relationships for betterment.

How do we approach our existing and potential new partners? What strengths do we have? What are the benefits of working with AAU in general and a college/school or a program within AAU in particular? These are some of the issues that we have to consider when we initiate partnerships with other institutions. In a few occasions, I have noted a twisted interpretation of the need for partnerships to the extent where potentially productive efforts were consumed by such misinterpretations of what partnerships do. The mutual component is fundamental in sustaining partnerships and it is the continued discharge of responsibilities of all parties that come to the partnership that realize the fruition of any partnership. There should be an understanding in clear terms that partnerships are not means of unidirectional relief.   All parties involved have their own interests and purposes. It is safe to say, every institution has something to offer, and obviously lacks something else, the whole point of partnerships is bringing resources and efforts together to complement the missing ones.

For example, at Addis Ababa University, the different academic units have unique and rich resources and assets that could serve as a dataset for research. Exchange of faculty expertise, sharing experiences on research traditions, and student exchange programs are areas the University collaboratively works with others. For our external partners, involving their PhD students in this kind of operation would provide them with international teaching experience and hence make their graduates marketable in this globalized and competitive market. Making their graduates marketable in the competitive market would, in turn, help them attract more new graduate students to their programs.

So, the bottom line is that we should not shy away from articulating what we, as partners, would bring to the partnership. As the name suggests, it is a partnership: a win-win situation (not one dependent on the other). Unless partners see some potential in the collaboration that the intended partnership fulfils their interests, they may not commit their resources and expertise to the partnership. On the other hand, listing all the challenges during the first encounter may discourage potential partners and push them away.

So, the most effective approach could be to clearly articulate what we as potential partners could bring to the table. What would we contribute to the partnership? How would the intended partnership benefit all parties involved in terms of student mobility, faculty exchange, collaborative research projects, community service/outreach or anything of that sort? How would the envisioned partnership help institutions involved achieve their goals? Addressing these and other related issues as well as knowing what we want to do with the intended collaboration and articulating those visions clearly may help us forge solid partnerships.

Once we establish partnerships, we need to sustain it through effective communication and nurture it through commitment and available resources. Building a successful partnership takes time and commitment like establishing a solid relationship.