Joint Venture, Single Vision
Based on a shared goal of easing students’ transition between Rogue Community College and Southern Oregon University, the institutions embarked on a jointly owned multimillion-dollar building. A detailed commingling model melds the activities of each institution into a seamless unit.
By Linda Daily
It was an inspired idea whose time had come: If community college students were able to receive instruction in a high-tech classroom building and sit side by side with university students, why wouldn't they be inspired to further their education? After all, Rogue Community College and Southern Oregon University had been sharing financial aid for some students and working with dual-enrolled students in the downtown Medford area in less-than-desirable building settings for years, so why not take the partnership to a higher level?
This dream of an enlightened partnership became reality in 2008 with the opening of the RCC/SOU Higher Education Center (see sidebar, “Check Out the Higher Education Center”). It was a dream that required painstaking attention to detail in the form of a groundbreaking operating agreement to achieve a true partnership—detail that even resulted in locating faculty offices from both institutions side by side according to discipline, to facilitate curriculum that transitions seamlessly.
Today, RCC's offerings at the Higher Education Center (HEC) include customized training, career and technical education, and transfer courses in 22 subject areas, as well as developmental and community education courses. In addition to three graduate programs, SOU offers two certificate programs, eight minors, and degree completion programs in management, accounting, psychology, education, computer information systems, criminal justice, and human services.
The partnership has been beneficial for both institutions. SOU experienced an 18 percent increase in enrollments at its Medford location after the HEC opened, and RCC saw a similar double-digit growth. Dual enrollment between both campuses has increased at an even higher rate: When the HEC opened, there was a jump of 35 percent in the fall headcount of students co-enrolled at RCC and SOU, with a steady climb since then.
Collaboration goes beyond the academic for RCC and SOU. Each fall there's a co-hosted Welcome Back Bash for their shared student bodies—a block party that closes down the street outside the HEC as administrators from both institutions grill hamburgers and hot dogs. SOU and RCC set up co-staffed information booths where extracurricular activities are on display; students interested in RCC's Latino Student Club, for example, can meet SOU's Multicultural Club leaders and begin forming connections.
The city of Medford has benefited also, with an influx of students into the downtown every day. If local merchants were at first unhappy with so many students in their parking spaces, they soon realized that those same students were potential customers. It helped that college and university staff began participating in the downtown community, serving on groups such as the city's parking commission, the nonprofit Heart of Medford association, and other local organizations. In turn, local businesses now participate in the Welcome Back Bash, offering students taste samples and coupons as well as a student-oriented business directory.
At the Beginning
The early seeds of what would grow into a committed partnership began in 1996 when RCC and SOU developed a white paper outlining how both institutions could work together in the downtown Medford area to serve students: RCC would focus on freshman and sophomore classes while SOU would concentrate on upperclass offerings. SOU had been offering degree-completion programs since 1987 in Medford, where it owned an older building that proved to be insufficient to serve its needs. RCC opened its Medford campus several blocks away in 1997; the campus would eventually encompass eight buildings, many of them remodeled car dealerships.
By 2004, RCC and SOU began talking about a joint campus. That dream surfaced at an ideal time, as former Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski had begun championing partnerships between colleges and universities. The presidents of RCC and SOU soon became strong supporters of a co-located campus. And their support came with a mandate to do so in a spirit of true partnership.
“It was very important to both institutions that we go into this project equally,” says Lynda Warren, co-leader of the HEC project as former RCC vice president of college services who became director of finance at Spokane (Washington) Transit Authority in August 2011.
Her partner in the HEC project—Craig Morris, SOU vice president of finance and administration—also recalls the strong emphasis on a partnership of equals. “Part of the ground rules was that we had to be respectful of each other's cultures. The charge clearly was to work together with open minds, and work where we could create partnered policies and procedures that were supportive of each other's institutional policies and procedures.”
And so it came to be, beginning with the 50-50 ownership split. Each institution contributed $11.1 million up front through a variety of funding mechanisms—state bonds, capital bond levy, and donations.
Yet achieving this financial foundation of equality was anything but simple, as Morris explains. “We were breaking new ground in terms of partnership and ownership of property in Oregon. The Oregon University System is a state agency. Community colleges are their own legal entities and they are governed by local boards that are elected by the communities.”
“We decided to do an overarching agreement and create the attachments that could be changed as the needs arose, without changing the whole document.”
Lynda Warren, formerly at Rogue Community College
Given that RCC and SOU had entirely different legal structures, sharing property was not a simple undertaking. The legal complexities of a deed, however, were not allowed to stand in the way. “The [institutions'] presidents and Lynda and I gave the attorneys the same speech: We want this to work. We don't want this to be conflict. We want this to be a partnership in the truest sense of the word. And we don't want anything in there that's going to spoil the camaraderie, if you will, between the two institutions,” recalls Morris. “And so they took that charge and they worked together in a win-win scenario.”
Once the funding was secured, attention turned to operational details. What did RCC and SOU have to do to ensure that the building and its services would truly function efficiently as a joint endeavor?
Hammering Out the Details
The decision early on to develop an operating agreement that incorporated 29 detailed attachments has proven invaluable for nurturing a strong working relationship between the two institutions (see sidebar, “RCC-SOU Operating Agreement Attachments”).
“Rather than doing a master document with all the operating procedures in it, we decided to do an overarching agreement and create the attachments that could be changed as the needs arose, without changing the whole document,” explains Warren. For example, an attachment governing environmental pest control had to be added to meet LEED certification requirements.
A joint facilities advisory committee (JFAC), composed of board members and administrators from each institution, was formed to begin the process of drafting the operating procedures and to oversee four primary subgroups: program, marketing, construction oversight, and operations. The very first step was brainstorming which joint services might need to be offered in the new center. This resulted in the creation of 37 teams whose jobs were to identify every possible decision that SOU and RCC would likely face in running a shared facility. Issues included space allocation and use, emergency repairs, student discipline, building security, vending, shipping and receiving, technology, insurance, and housekeeping.
Team representatives reported their findings in the form of draft statements to the core operations subgroup composed of Morris, Warren, the building administrators from each institution, and the project construction managers. This group met weekly, biweekly, and monthly depending on what was happening at the time. If discussions resulted in changes, team representatives would report back to their teams and make modifications to the draft statements. Once everyone was in agreement, a draft statement would become an official operating attachment.
The detail embedded in the operating agreement has allowed it to function as a living document—a resource for questions that inevitably arise, especially when new staff come on board. “We thought that if we spent the time up front trying to think of all the different situations, we wouldn't be spending the time afterwards,” notes Warren, “and I think that's exactly what happened.”
Common Sense Prevails
Another principle responsible for the success of the Higher Education Center was the diligent exercise of common sense. “Early on it was decided that whichever institution could perform the service the most efficiently and cost-effectively would oversee that service,” says RCC's Warren. That explains the thinking that resulted in the development of Operating Agreement Attachment I: Provisions Regarding Upkeep, Repairs, and Maintenance of the Property/Building and Alterations and Improvements to the Building Including Custodial, Utilities, and Data Requirements (see sidebar for full reprinted text of this attachment).
“The HEC building is located where RCC already had a campus. We decided that what would make most sense, rather than having people [from both institutions] dedicated to the building, was if RCC could include that building as part of its maintenance rotation,” she says. “On the flip side, SOU was familiar with the HVAC [heating, ventilation, air conditioning] units that were chosen for the building because it was the same system that SOU had on its Ashland campus. It was not something that RCC was familiar with. Rather than trying to train RCC folks, it made more sense to put it under SOU because they already had the expertise.”
Other areas where common sense led the way in reaching decisions include:
Insurance. The Oregon University System is self-insured. “It was less expensive to go through RCC's insurer and have SOU reimburse RCC for that cost than it was to go through the OUS [Oregon University System],” says Warren. “And we had to get special permission, because they're self-insured, to let RCC insure the whole building and let SOU reimburse RCC for its half.”
Smoking policy. “We have different smoking policies,” explains Morris. “SOU has a policy where you can't smoke within 20 feet of the building and RCC had a much broader policy. When RCC wanted to change its policy, we had to work together and come to the understanding that where we have policies that aren't the same, we'll adopt for the HEC that policy which is the most restrictive. So in the case of the smoking policy, we adopted the SOU policy for that building even though it was more restrictive than the RCC policy, so that SOU would not find itself in conflict with its own policy.”
Hiring. During the initial brainstorming process, a human resources team was formed to determine how best to share employees. “After discussing different contracting requirements, we decided it would be best if just one institution hired [each] person and then it would bill the other institution for its share,” explains Warren.
Facility rental. At times, it made the most sense to develop a unique policy and process for the HEC. “This is such a high-profile building in the community that we wanted to make sure that we marketed it as a place to meet,” explains Warren. So RCC and SOU agreed that the HEC should have its own facility-rental process and contact person.
“Psychology professors from RCC and SOU have side-by-side offices, leading to the smooth handoff of students as the professors compare notes and keep an eye on future and former students.”
Craig Morris, Southern Oregon University
Reaching agreement on the multitude of decisions necessary to develop and sign off on the operating attachments did not happen overnight. “We spent months—I think maybe nine months—working this out,” notes Morris. “These teams all came back together and met with Lynda and me regularly, and we helped them sort through issues. It was a very exhaustive process. It required a lot of patience and it required leadership from both Lynda and me in trying to keep everybody focused on what the objective was at the end of the day, which was to have this partnership of policies that would really work for us. It was hard, hard work but it was worth every minute of effort that we put into it. It enabled us to work together so smoothly.”
So smoothly, in fact, that even the retirement of both institutions' presidents as well as other top administrators in the midst of the HEC project did not throw things off course.
Attention to a well-integrated curriculum at the HEC has also been ongoing. A quarterly review of programs allows SOU's provost and RCC's vice president for instruction, along with others from both institutions, to examine course offerings, and to identify and resolve any issues. In particular, the group ensures that SOU's lower-division courses don't duplicate RCC's efforts. An annual review also led to the realization that financial aid was on different cycles for the two institutions, creating problems for students who transitioned between them from summer to fall terms; now the financial aid cycles are set to move into alignment in the coming academic year.
Annual meetings also bring faculty together by departments. In such a setting, math faculty have confirmed that their syllabi are aligned, so that students completing lower-division requirements at RCC are well prepared for upper levels of math at SOU. Computer science faculty have discussed SOU bringing a degree-completion program to the Medford campus to tap into RCC graduates.
“The co-location of faculty and staff has been highly beneficial,” says Morris. For example, “psychology professors from RCC and SOU have side-by-side offices, leading to the smooth handoff of students as the professors compare notes and keep an eye on future and former students moving through the pipeline.”
The Budgeting Process
The equal partnership powered by common sense that defines the Higher Education Center can also be seen in its budgeting process. When the HEC first opened, Warren and Morris “were personally very involved in developing the budget each year. But in the last couple of years,” Morris notes, “we've stepped away from that considerably and let the [HEC] staff have much more control over that process of building the budget.”
“Even though the building is jointly owned 50-50, expenses are not necessarily split that way.”
Lynda Warren, formerly at Rogue Community College
The current operations team comprises six people—three from each institution. Each on-site building administrator manages his or her institution's interests in the building, and works together very closely with the others to manage the budget and then help build it. The operations team meets quarterly to conduct performance oversight. “We all really have a pretty good idea of where the budget is during the course of the year and what the issues are,” notes Morris, “so when it comes time to pull together the budget for the next year, it all falls in place pretty easily.”
It's important to point out that “even though the building is jointly owned 50-50, expenses are not necessarily split that way,” says Warren. “RCC has a lot more students that come through the building on a daily basis, so janitorial and maintenance expenses are split with RCC covering two thirds and SOU covering one third,” she explains. “Other building-related expenses such as utilities and insurance are split 50-50. Vending and facility-rental proceeds are also shared.”
Looking back on the evolution of the Higher Education Center, neither Warren nor Morris would do anything differently—unless, of course, they could have peered into a crystal ball. Original plans called for a fourth floor, which had to be eliminated because cost projections indicated there wouldn't be enough money. The project eventually came in $1 million under budget.
“In hindsight, I wish we had gone ahead and built a fourth floor and just not finished the interior, because as it turned out we could have afforded to do that. But at the time, the cost estimates were such that we could not [afford it]. So we value-engineered the fourth floor out of the project and just made it a three-story building,” says Morris. “We opened at 100 percent capacity and we continue to be at 100 percent capacity in that building. So it would have been nice if we had room to expand.”
For fellow business officers considering a co-location venture, Warren advises, “You have to check your egos at the door. You've got to have really open, honest communication with one another.”
Morris recommends, “Have an operating agreement that clearly covers all the areas of joint operation. Each partnership will have to determine for itself how extensive that agreement needs to be, but certainly ours is available online. People who are contemplating a partnership can use our operating agreement as a way to get started. Having that in place just solved everything.”
LINDA DAILY, Falls Church, Virginia, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.