In the CHAE Report (Spring 2016), Dr. Amey discusses the organizational successes, challenges, and opportunities of consortium work in higher education.

Written by Sarah Fitzgerald, doctoral student 

Professor Marilyn Amey is studying the organizational successes and challenges of the Bio-computational Evolution in Action Consortium (BEACON)—a National Science Foundation (NSF) Science and Technology Center. Since 2010, Amey, alongside Evaluation Specialist Patricia Farrell- Cole and several graduate students, has used various methods to evaluate the center, including: surveys, focus groups, individual interviews, and most recently, social network analysis based on co-authorship ties. According to Amey, in addition to creating annual evaluation reports, this study has broader implications for other interdisciplinary and inter-institutional endeavors. She believes communicating across disciplines and trying to create shared understanding necessitates ongoing socialization for those engaged in consortium work. Amey’s work helps BEACON improve, but it also identifies ways in which other higher education consortia can plan for effective communication, motivation, sustainability, leadership, and promotion of diversity. This is helpful because there is a growing demand for interdisciplinary and inter-institutional work in higher education institutions. 

Differing contexts

Engaging the work of evaluation within BEACON is a challenging endeavor given the complexity of its organization, which includes five university partners. Much communication between consortium members takes places virtually, and virtual communication does not always have the same impact as in-person communication. When it comes to evaluation, coordinating with people across institutions can be difficult, and observing trends can be an elusive pursuit when individuals are constantly joining or leaving the consortium. Disciplinary differences between the evaluators and the faculty involved in the consortium present challenges to understanding the experiences of consortium members. These disciplinary differences also make conveying the relevance of findings to the BEACON leadership team difficult, which Amey believes can be attributed to the leadership team’s lack of experience focusing on group dynamics and organizational development. Amey explains that she and Farrell-Cole have a difficult time with survey completion, because consortium members become impatient with repeatedly filling out lengthy surveys requested by the leadership team. 

Competing demands 

One issue Amey faces in her work with BEACON is navigating the convergence of various academic units. She explains that when you create a project, such as BEACON, involving faculty from different units, you must be aware of the demands those faculty members face within their home units. There are five institutions and many departments involved in BEACON, and there are instances in which the demands of those units impact the dynamics of the consortium. For example, each institution’s schedule of classes determines when BEACON classes may be scheduled. An additional issue arises around whether or not faculty members are recognized for BEACON grants, a factor that is determined by the standards of each faculty member’s department. Amey and other members of the BEACON leadership team are seeking ways to incentivize faculty participation with the consortium when grant attribution is not available. 

Diversity and sustainability

Another issue Amey has encountered involves promoting diversity. She explains that scientists can be so focused on the content of their work they overlook issues of diversity. BEACON has a director dedicated to promoting diversity work among faculty. Amey explains instilling the value of diversity across sites has not always been easy, and definitions of diversity within the center have changed over time. For example, the consortium now focuses more on creating an inclusive environment for people with disabilities, an issue previously overlooked in their diversity efforts. Amey asserts sustainability is an important issue to consider with groups such as BEACON, which function on soft money. BEACON recently received a one-time, five-year renewal of its initial grant. Given the NSF funds cannot be renewed again, Amey and Farrell-Cole are working to create a plan for sustaining BEACON when the NSF funds run out. Their goal is to maintain BEACON’s vibrancy, but Amey worries there is a danger of complacency once the consortium members believe success has been achieved. With the grant renewal behind them, she believes retaining current members and focusing on succession planning as the older members retire is an important next step.