Scaling Innovation in Higher Education: The University Innovation Alliance (UIA)

Colleges and universities have a long tradition of competing and collaborating with one another. Institutions compete for resources (enrollment, faculty and student talent, grant revenues, etc.) as well as reputation. They also collaborate to achieve economies of scale and to enable  innovation.

When designing collaborative schemes, it is helpful to know who your peers are: who else can benefit? how can the work be shared? where are potential partners?

In our University Futures, Library Futures project, we have been using patterns of shared institutional direction to identify peer groups or ‘types’.  The goal is to identify patterns of shared institutional need that can inform the design and delivery of academic library services.

Our institution typology (described in this recent blog post) allows for multiple comparisons among the 1500 US colleges and universities in our project population. We are using the typology to examine institutional directions in established groups (AAU, Oberlin Group, etc.) as well informal peer groups derived from our dataset.

One of the groups we have been interested to examine is the University Innovation Alliance (UIA). UIA is a national coalition of 11 public research universities that share a commitment to increasing the number and diversity of college graduates in the United States. UIA institutions embrace and promote the idea that:

higher education needs to do a better job of graduating students across the socioeconomic spectrum, particularly low-income students, first-generation students, and students of color. Raising graduation rates is imperative for individual social mobility and U.S. global competitiveness.  (UIA website, “Who we are”)

The UIA is an instructive example of a consortium that seeks to scale innovation. (For more on how consortia scale capacity, learning, innovation and influence, see this recent blog post by Lorcan Dempsey.)

Since starting their concerted effort in 2014, these 11 institutions have succeeded in producing 25% more low-income graduates per year (nearly 6,000 new graduates annually). UIA institutions attribute their success to a commitment to setting ambitious goals, opening their data, and sharing everything they learn about scaling graduation and diversity in higher education.

UIA institutions’ educational directions – our model’s 1st dimension, which we term the What Dimension – are charted below. The graph reveals that UIA institutions share overall rather similar educational directions, with slightly more variance in their Liberal Education and Career directions than their Research direction:

In addition to exploring what educational directions UIA institutions are pursing, we are also interested to understand how and for whom education is offered. This is captured by our 2nd Dimension:

The bottom (blue) portion of the bars represents a Traditional Enrollment Profile and (e.g. students under age 25 who study on-campus, full-time); the top (orange) portion of the bars represents a New Traditional Enrollment Profile (e.g. students over age 25 who study off-campus, part-time). UIA institutions exhibit diversity in their enrollment profile, with many of them geared largely toward a Traditional Enrollment Profile, but between about a quarter to half of their offerings are geared toward a New Traditional Enrollment Profile. However, it is important to keep in mind that our model is based on 2015 IPEDS data, and changes may have occurred meanwhile.

In sum, UIA institutions are revealed by our model to have similar educational directions (per our 1st Dimension) with some variance in their Enrollment Profile and Learning Experience. Since the UIA was formed in 2014, and our data is from 2015, it is not unreasonable to expect that changes in these institutions’ 2nd Dimension have been made, to support the UIA commitment to increase the number and diversity of graduates.

An interesting question here is whether the strong institutional isomorphism within UIA, coupled with the group’s shared mission of expanding participation and increasing graduation in higher education, presents new opportunities for library innovation around student success initiatives. The UIA educational directions captured in our working model are shared among a larger cohort of US universities; best practices that are demonstrated to scale within UIA may have much broader impact. As these “Next generation universities” define new models of institutional success, will their libraries coalesce around a new vision of service excellence and student success that is more clearly aligned with digital teaching, learning and research workflows? Will library service models in access-oriented research universities diverge from service models among the top tier of ARL libraries? Would such differences manifest themselves in the scope of academic library services (the range of what is offered), or in how services are sourced and operationalized (at institution-scale or group-scale)?

We are currently working with library leaders from UIA member institutions to examine how these libraries have been aligning their services to scale innovation in US higher education. Look for our session on University Futures, Library Futures: Aligning Library Services for Technology-Enhanced Teaching Learning and Research, at the CNI Spring 2018 Membership Meeting on April 12-13, 2018 in San Diego, CA.

Note: an earlier version of this post included a satirical etching intended to illustrate collegiate collaboration. It was not a terrific example in the first place and caused unintended offense. It has since been removed. We have also revised the order of contributing authors (WordPress displays only the first named author); ultimate responsibility for the post resides with