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Taking off the Roof: Cultivating Collaboration and Ministerial Ingenuity

Union Theological Seminary’s (New York Pathways for Tomorrow Initiative grant, “Taking Off the Roof: Cultivating Collaboration and Ministerial Ingenuity,” aims to create collaborative models for managing campus operations, promote student success, expand academic opportunities, and forge technology innovation. It includes partnerships with other small, independent theological schools, area colleges, and nonprofit organizations. Additionally, it includes the creation of a design-thinking technology lab that will unite theological schools, art and design experts, faith-based social justice organizations, and pastoral leaders. 

David Gastwirth is vice president of learning innovation and strategic initiatives at Union. Karen Stiller interviewed him.

Briefly describe the project.

In many ways, it’s a project of projects with an overall approach to innovation built on partnerships that enable institutions to achieve what they couldn’t independently. These partnerships can address issues of financial stability, capacity, or unique expertise. The big idea is that collaboration and partnership are crucial opportunities for theological schools.

Union is inherently collaborative. It’s part of our DNA. Our physical location affords us the opportunity to explore new ways of collaboration and engage a diverse portfolio of collaborators.

The actual project consists of three different projects. The first focuses on how ATS seminaries can work collaboratively on the student experience. The second is about how neighboring non-profits can together to manage a physical campus, which is expensive. It impractical for institutions to share street corners to do it alone. The third involves creating a collaborative space for seminaries and faith-based organizations centered around technology and innovation.

When I’m asked to give an elevator pitch, it can be challenging. Our focus is on identifying potential partners across multiple dimensions of our institution. We are a theological school within a group of ATS schools, an academic institution, a nonprofit, mission-driven organization operating a physical campus in NYC. Additionally, we are an innovative institution leveraging technological advancements. We view our institution through multiple dimensions and seek potential partners who align with these dimensions.

We seek to identify points of overlap, opportunities for collaboration, areas of shared need, and alignment of long-term strategy and mission.

What have you learned so far?

Every partnership is unique and cannot follow a one-size-fits-all approach. Our partnerships are driven by relationships and process, unlike the standard documents and agreements commonly used in the fields of contracts, laws, and compliance. Such standardized methods do not work in our context.

Long-term collaborations on other projects should be considered. Another key element is personal relationships. It’s beneficial to have strong connections at the presidential level and among the staff responsible for designing and implementing initiatives. Building relationships at both the senior level and with those actually doing the work is essential.

Whether it involves spending significant time together working on job descriptions, or brainstorming sessions, or various realms of meeting, this foundational work is crucial before you can truly move forward. It becomes problematic if, down the road, you realize there is a lack of trust or agreement on key components of the partnership. Involving legal counsel can complicate matters and potentially undermine the hard work already done. Since these institutions often lack in-house general counsel, external lawyers might not have a deep connection to the institution or a full understanding of long-term strategic considerations. Ultimately, it’s about building relationship and trust.

There are ways to achieve the same outcomes as a contract without it feeling like one. For instance, using an email instead of a formal document can make a big difference. In one partnership, we hired several staff members to work across multiple institutions. We needed to ensure all the institutions were comfortable with the job descriptions, which we developed together using Google Docs. We aimed to meet everyone’s needs, while ensuring that the “home institution” (where the staff members were official employed) wouldn’t have an outsized influence on their work.

We were very deliberate in crafting the job descriptions, which went through multiple reviews. We conducted and continue to conduct shared interviews, allowing space for each institution to interview alone. This process, which we repeated several times, has worked extremely well. We haven’t had a lawyer involved in these shared services.

The key message here is that agreements foster shared understanding, emphasizing the need to clearly define expectations and requirements so that partners are fully informed; it’s crucial to avoid overly complex legal jargon while ensuring clarity.

In cases involving data regulations, such as FERPA, legal counsel should be involved to incorporate necessary legal language. This ensures compliance with legal requirements, clearly indicating that such language is mandated by law.

What has surprised you along the way?

I think it’s unexpected partnerships that can emerge. These are collaborations your never anticipated or imagined possible, spurred by observing what others are doing or recognizing shared challenges. Through these interactions, you gain insights and knowledge from each other. Initially identified partnerships can also evolve into additional collaborations that yield benefits extending far beyond the original scope.

When we had a question about a course offering, my immediate thought was, “I’ll call up so and so.” These relationships aren’t just limited to the presidential level; sometimes it’s the registrars.

In the realm of theological schools, traditional higher education research and practices often don’t apply due to their size and focus solely on graduate education. Typically, the schools you’re most familiar with or seek advice from belong to your denomination and may share your modality (online or residential). The numbers of potential advisors and helpers narrows quickly, but expanding your interactions to include a more diverse range of institutions can lead to surprising new opportunities and perspectives.

As you collaborate with partners, you discover that despite initial perceptions of differences, you often uncover unexpected similarities. For instance, while Manhattan School of Music focuses on a specialized area of higher education distinct from theology, they face similar challenges.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the potential to build a community of peers.

What have been a few of your successes?

The most straightforward is the collaborative academic and student experience with Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School and New York Theological Seminary. Our students profoundly benefited from not only the availability of these student service resources but also from our ability to hire exceptionally qualified, full-time staff for these roles.

These new staff members themselves benefited from the exceptional training they received while working with multiple people. This elevated their ability to provide significantly improved service and support to students, resulting in clear and positive outcomes.

Moreover, this initiative addressed issues related to staff burnout and accessibility services. At Union, approximately 20 percent of our students required accommodations, placing a burden on our dean. By hiring specialists, we enhanced both staff wellbeing and the quality of service provided.

Another success example is the initial oversight of writing support services in our shared support services plan. Writing services weren’t originally prioritized and having one person catering to three faculties and student populations seemed challenging. At Union, we already had someone dedicated to this role. However, one of our shared staff members discussed Union’s writing support to another partner institution offered with another partner institution. This led the partner school to request the addition of writing support services to our suite of offerings.

This decision benefited all of us. It allowed us to share expenses and retain a highly skilled staff member. Our experienced writing center director found a way to fit it in with their workload, enabling us to provide a service that wasn’t originally envisioned as part of the collaborative.

What aspects of the project are you hopeful about?

I’m hopeful about sustaining the initiative beyond the grant funding period, and I believe it is possible but requires an institutional culture change, shifting views around collaboration versus wanting to operate individually and retain our own identity. I’m hopeful that this becomes a new reality for how smaller institutions of higher education. 

To survive and thrive, we must offer world-class student support services, so students will enroll and graduate. These aren’t “nice to have,” but rather they are “need to have.”

For small institutions, this shared model is effective in achieving this goal. It makes the most sense and works best.

Regarding student services, there has been less activity compared to academic collaboration like shared classes and teaching. Many were unsure about how shared services could operate effectively until we demonstrated the potential.

What are you learning that could help other schools?

Never put all your eggs in one basket. Much of our learning comes from both successful and unsuccessful experiences across various types of partnerships. If we had hired only one shared role and it failed, we wouldn’t be able to say, “Here are the things that worked well with this other role. Here are the things that were different.” Some prefer to “start small and slowly grow.”

I took the approach of “Let’s go bigger so we could have more than one to learn from and have more of a team of folks experiencing something new together.”

Don’t think you have to start small. Sometimes starting big provides lessons on successes and failures. These lessons are crucial for long-term sustainability.

When we announced we were hiring four new staff in one year, some project groups felt we were moving too quickly. I view this grant as an innovation grant, and not just incremental change. Big ideas have the potential to transform the way theological schools operate.

Our goal is to have everything fully operational by end of year three – the full team and gear. At that point, we will assess our progress.

There’s a natural fear of failure, often rooted in financial constraints and a scarcity mindset. However, I believe the Pathways grants are designed to encourage exploration beyond proven methods, where successes and failures are equally important.

When it comes to innovation, learning from failures can be more important than short-term successes. It’s the concept of “failing forward” that’s so important.    

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