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Help is just a phone call away: the Learning Alliance offers just-in-time expertise to IHE decisionmakers with tough decisions to make.

There are tough times ahead for higher education says Robert Zemsky, and universities face challenges they've never before confronted. Zemsky, chair of The (newly formed) Learning Alliance (, is particularly concerned that colleges and universities are becoming mere businesses, and that they are "losing their claim on public purpose."

A collaboration of 11 higher ed research and consulting organizations, The Learning Alliance is committed to helping IHEs succeed as places of public purpose by providing access to knowledge and expertise far beyond that which any single organization can offer. And it's all done by phone (610-399-6601). In development since spring, The Learning Alliance is a sounding board for college and university planning, and a way for top institutional execs and administrators to test worst-case scenarios--even as an institution moves full-speed ahead.

While we here at University Business are not in the habit of using editorial to promote new products or services, this is a new model of service with such a high level of purpose and such potential for far-reaching impact on the higher ed business community as a whole, that we feel justified in offering you, our reader, detailed information. Will The Learning Alliance fulfill its lofty goals? We recently spoke with Zemsky about the program, its format, and its intentions.

UB: What is The Learning Alliance?

Zemsky: The world has become increasingly complex and we realty need to pool expertise. The Learning Alliance draws together a Lot of separate expertise into a readily distributable format so that an institution doesn't have to spend half its time trying to figure out who the right person is to talk to. Many of the right people are "bundled" in The Learning Alliance, and the whole setup is designed to get the institution in touch with the right person expeditiously.

Why now?

A tipping point is at hand where market forces are turning institutions into market enterprises, and the institutions aren't thinking very much about the consequences. When they do think about the situation, they bemoan the fact that they are being "commodified." But that will happen no matter what, so the question is, How can you be both market-smart and mission-centered? If institutions don't develop a strategy to address that now, the question will be irrelevant.

You've written a lot about public purpose; is there public purpose to The Learning Alliance?

Yes, and it's simply this: If the Alliance helps you think through your market issues, you'll have a Lot more time to spend on public purpose and you'll have more time to think about what kind of contribution you make. Most of the entities that form The Learning Alliance are agencies of public purpose [see box, "Anatomy of the Alliance," next page]. Our sense of the institutions out there is that they are scrambling on a day-to-day basis and no one is taking much time to step back and think. So, the public purpose to The Learning Alliance is to buffer these institutional leaders from the daily grind so that they can have time to think about what is going on in their larger world.

But isn't The Learning Alliance just a telephone conversation?

In one sense, that's exactly what it is. But we're providing strategic expertise over the phone, with rapid response time and low transaction cost. There hasn't been that kind of rapid information supply to higher education before. Most administrators think, "If I'm going to talk to a consultant, I have to bring the consultant on campus and everyone else has to get braced because there's no telling what kind of damage this consultant will do, even though we're paying the consultant to do good."

But institutions don't have to brace themselves before they call us; the threat level is much Lower. What we do is very unobtrusive. You know the old saw that a consultant is someone who Looks at your watch to tell you what time it is? We're beyond that. We're not afraid to say what we think you should be doing, or what we think is right for you. The other dirty little secret about consultants is the idea that they are always selling their next engagement, because that's how they stay in business. There is no selling by the experts in the Alliance. The service is a Low-cost, prepaid subscription and we're not trying to have you bring us out to your campus so we can run the meter--there is no meter.

It sounds like The Learning Alliance is a hotline of sorts, where there's always someone on the other end to help you when you need it.

The irony is that there is Less of that perception than we'd like. We want presidents to think, "You know, it just helps to have someone to talk to before I do something stupid." Only a small number of the calls we've taken so far fit into that category. Frankly, we'd like more of them. We think there's a misperception of the administrator as this tough person who collects the facts, makes the decision, and goes on. But that's not real Life. People in real life need to hear themselves talk, even as they are about to go out and do brave and sometimes stupid things.

You've been developing this program for more than six months now. What have you learned about how institutional leaders are likely to use The Learning Alliance?

There are two habits of mind that characterize college and university administrators. First, they do not like to admit they have a problem until they have a solution (and, of course, once they have a solution they don't need us).

Second, when they have a big problem, all the key officers meet in the president's office at 5:30 and talk to each other. But that's exactly the moment they should be talking to someone else, someone they trust, to get a broader mix. The reason they all talk to each other is that they're not sure they want the larger world to know that they don't know what they're doing. So we have to overcome those hurdles: It's okay to have problems--everyone has problems--the real question is, How do you solve them? And when the problems are big, it's probably not the time to talk to each other, it's time to talk to somebody else.

Can you talk about the kinds of problems you are getting?

About 20 percent of the calls our experts deal with are about strategic planning. That seems to be when presidents say, "Not that I have a problem, but it would help me to know what someone else out there is doing." For example, we hold a regular conference call with the senior team at a major university we work with, and a panel from The Learning Alliance. The panel asks the university team questions about their strategic planning, just to make sure they are considering things other than those issues they've already thought about. One thing the panel had seen--and the institution had probably also seen, but didn't want to say out loud--was that this strategic plan had an extraordinarily short time horizon, maybe a matter of months. They really needed to lengthen it, to address some of the issues they were dealing with. At first there was some defensiveness when we brought this up, but after a while, they got into it and the session was quite successful

Another big chunk of our callers--maybe 30 percent--ask for help thinking through the budget crisis. We hear it in a variety of ways, but by and large the question is not, "Show me ways that I don't have to reduce staff." Instead, it's, "Show me some ways that I can reduce staff and not lose momentum."

We also deal a lot with spot issues that aren't necessarily crises. For instance, the state had changed the ground rules regarding how one institution was going to finance a new dormitory, so the school had to figure out a new way to finance it, and consider the consequences of alternative financing schemes. The most obvious solution appeared to be the forging of partnerships with private developers. But, as institutions that have done this have discovered, these partnerships can sometimes introduce a whole different set of issues, ranging from liability on one end, to the question of whether you can actually run certain programs in a building you don't own.

Another example: One president was about to initiate discussions on issues surrounding athletics at his university and, in anticipation of what was about to happen, he wanted to speak with someone who had been through it before. Then there was the Liberal arts college that discovered that, for reasons it didn't understand, a significantly fewer number of its students went abroad than did those from the institutions it viewed as competitors. We're helping them puzzle out why that might be.

The Learning Alliance Web site will be up and running this month. Is there an added value to the site (versus the telephone advising) that administrators will find useful?

The Web site is interesting because rather than just presenting an endless list of all the experts that can help with your problem, the site asks you to specify the kind of problem you are dealing with, and then identifies the experts who can help you. So one of the added values is that it forces people to really think about and define the problem they want to work on, and then see that there is a relationship between the problem and the expert set. Change the problem, and the expert set changes as well. Generally, when you work with a consulting group, no matter what the problem s, you get the same people. But with The Alliance, you really do get different people, based on the different problem sets.


Three types of organizations comprise The Learning Alliance:


Cap Gemini Ernst & Young

The Jackson Hole Higher Education Group

Marts & Lundy

The Peach Bottom Group


Academic Search Consultants Service

The Knight Collaborative (and its predecessor, the Pew Higher Education Roundtable)

The National Center for Higher Education Management Systems

The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education


Center for the Study of Postsecondary Education at the University of Michigan

The Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania

Stanford Institute for Higher Education Research at Stanford University
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Title Annotation:Consulting
Author:Goral, Tim
Publication:University Business
Date:Nov 1, 2003
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