Experiments in Cross-Institutional Collaboration: 5 Musings

Working-group participants responding to our second set of questions provided a fascinating array of collaborative examples.  We have reached out across many different kinds of institutional lines—educational and community; public and private; urban and rural; professional and social—identifying in the process profound and often hidden possibilities as well as significant challenges for sustainable, collaborative public history work.  Drawing both on the agenda-setting questions for this round and on the common promises and problems identified in the responses, this summary lays out five common issues, highlights some of your creative responses to these issues, and identifies the ongoing challenges to collaboration that they present.

At the end of this summary, you will find the third and final blog post prompt. Please provide your response no later than Sunday, March 25.

  1. Time scarcity: This is a pressing problem for public historians in academic programs and in community organizations, for students, and for partner communities and institutions.  The potential for quick burn-out from mounting responsibilities in the university, the constant activity required by truly collaborative inter-institutional relationships, and the demanding work schedules faced by non-profit professionals and students all raise doubts about the sustainability of inter-institutional collaborations. Pressuring academic administrators and department chairs to assign value to the often unnoticed and unpaid work of managing collaborative relationships would help ease some of that pressure.  At the same time, academic institutions –particularly those dependent on state resources—are being asked to do more work, at a faster pace, with fewer resources. How might we think about inter-institutional collaboration, at least in part, as a solution to this deeper structural problem? How might we identify and manage workflows between institutions involved in common projects?  How we might address the difficulties that might be posed by the different missions of potentially collaborating institutions?


  1. The ethics of unpaid internships: While this is an often-discussed issue in the field, the collaborations described in the previous post highlight its complexity. Several participants admitted that coursework and internship projects facilitated by cross-institutional cooperation may well lower wages and reduce paid opportunities for emerging public history professionals.  On the other side of this, non-profit, local, and sometimes rural institutions with little budget for paid positions often welcome the help that students can bring, further raising the risk that we exploit our students.  There may be important distinctions between undergraduates who build valuable basic skills in unpaid work as opposed to graduate students providing unpaid professionalizing labor.  One model for avoiding competition in the public history jobs market may be collaboration with community organizations that are not public-history centered but which may benefit from historical projects. Student and faculty work in this sector might even help create new revenue for novel paid positions, insofar as local funders might be tapped for longer-term projects once an ongoing collaboration is established.  Here, too, divergent institutional missions can prove a challenge for sharing authority in ways that enable community members, local professionals, educators, and students to emerge as meaningful participants.  It’s important that students can produce something is both inter-institutionally useful and demonstrably authored by them.


  1. Regional collaboration: A number of participants provided examples of regional collaboration among various public history programs, but some never took practical shape or were short-lived.  Our current climate of competition for students in higher education is a ubiquitous force driving a proliferation of programs that are sometimes of questionable depth and often vehicles for inefficient duplication of effort.  Many participants have ideas about how to combat these problems through inter-institutional frameworks that would involve complementary programs across regional educational institutions and joint collaborations with regional community institutions shared among area educational institutions.  To persuade administrators that sharing rather than competing for students could work, there is promise that successfully connecting Public History programs to existing trans-national institutional partnerships might convince administrators to support similar collaborations closer to home.  Major challenges lie in ensuring sustainability and in managing the considerable extra workload that communication across shared frameworks entails.


  1. Diversity: Participants recognized the crucial importance of creating broadly inclusive cross-institutional collaborative opportunities, and they acknowledged the incredible difficulty of this work. Diversity in this context is understood to mean representation and inclusion across social groups (identified by race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc.), across professions and historical stakeholders (educator, archivists, librarians, students, community members) and across geography (urban/rural).  In order to maximize diversity, ongoing conversation and constant reflection must be central throughout the process of building and maintaining relationships. But it can be difficult to attract a wide range of stakeholders at crucial moments in project development, and the processes of recruitment and communication can be all consuming.  Further, while cultivating projects with local communities can provide opportunities for building diversity across locality and region, local communities and their institutions can also resist diversity, particularly when their own vision of their history rests on established and often closed community connections. Diversifying the composition, content, and collaborative relationships central to public history remains one of the biggest hurdles in the successful achievement of shared authority.


  1. Funding: In this era of diminishing resources, public institutions warily protect their narrowing slices of the economic pie from organizations they see as competitors rather than the collaborators (dare we say comrades?) they could be.  Thus, scrambling to acquire funding often undermines both cross-institutional public history relationships and the individual organizations that take part in them.  Many participants noted the difficulty of getting administrators who hold purse strings to see the value of collaborating across local or regional institutions. Instead, administrators presume a model of competition with other mission-related organizations for students and dollars. It is possible that national organizations like the National Council on Public History could play a role by publicizing and promoting the value of resource sharing across institutions rather than accepting the neoliberal competitive models currently dominant. Getting local private-donor buy-in for local cross-institutional projects that might interest community-invested businesses provides another promising model for funding local projects.  This is certainly a promising avenue for funding in the absence of wider public resources.  It does pose its own challenges for shared authority when local institutions enforce boundaries related to their own perspectives rather than embracing the wider shared authority of public historical work.  Moreover, it may be important to couple these partnerships with ongoing pressure on larger institutions not to narrow their vision of community engagement to the currently administratively popular “public/private partnership” model.  National-level foundation support will surely continue to play a vital role here, as well.  This is another field in which cross-institutional collaboration may be vital to sustaining a healthy variety of public history institutions, rather than watching them diminish to a few noticed and funded by foundation choices.  With respect to many of these dimensions of the funding problem, the multi-institutional public history community may itself need to be a participatory social movement in order to reach some of its goals, in addition to providing the many public-facing histories of such movements that have long been important components of its collaborative projects.

So far, our pre-conference discussion has been tremendously fruitful for identifying pressing problems –those pesky power lines– that can prevent us from establishing sustainable and effective cross-institutional partnerships. We also have at our finger tips a series of models and proposals that might help us disrupt or at least re-configure those power lines. For your third and final pre-conference blog post, please consider the following two questions:

First: Given the barriers and opportunities that exist for cross-institutional partnerships in public history education, how specifically would we have to transform our thinking about any or all of the following:  institutional autonomy, departmental competition and collaboration, workload, tenure and promotion, student recruitment, and/or the development, supervision, and assessment of student-driven class projects and student internships?

Second: What do you think would be the most useful outcome or product of our working group?

Post Author, Kathryn J. Oberdeck



11 Replies to “Experiments in Cross-Institutional Collaboration: 5 Musings”

  1. For our institution, the most useful outcome from our working group would be a set of internship guidelines or an internship contract template that we can share with our network of local institutions. These shared expectations would go a long way in helping students identify welcoming placement sites and anticipate the demands of the job.

  2. I would really like to see our working group develop a short “pitch” for Department Chairs, College Deans, and other University administrators that might help us convince them of the benefits of cross-institutional partnerships.

  3. After I have written my response, I am realizing that what I have is much longer than the two postings already here, but here it is:

    #1 – I am one of those who believe there can and perhaps should be a difference between undergraduate and graduate internships. While undergraduate students can provide valuable services, those students also are in the process of simply being exposed to the work to see if it is something they want to pursue, often bring far fewer professional skills than a graduate student, and generally require much more direct supervision, time, and energy from the institution. For those reasons, it seems more acceptable for undergraduates to engage in unpaid internships (though paid would be ideal – and I try to encourage stipends to help cover housing or transportation costs and limit the internship hours so that students can still work a paying job while completing the internship). The idea proposed by the facilitators (in response #2) is one that is particularly interesting to me because the proposition to work with less traditionally ‘history-focused’ organizations creates potential future employment and brings history to the fore in new ways, to new audiences. In today’s environment, when history majors are in steady decline, we must do all we can to not just promote public history, undertake valuable community projects, and produce qualified students, we must promote history and its value more broadly. It is my hope that, once we do this work, our institutions will see the value of it and, thus, of us and of our programs. I also envision that through work like this our communities would better see the value of that work, of us as academics (that we do work and don’t just lounge in that magical and mysterious ‘ivory tower’), and of universities more broadly. Yet in today’s world of less funding and more required work for faculty, I honestly have no good answer for this, which is why I – like I am sure all of us – are here! I know that we must engage in dogged self-promotion. Whenever we do this work, tell people about it. Get it out in the university papers and calendars, send it to the local and regional papers and news/radio stations, submit invitations and announcement to our politicians, talk about it on phone calls to those same politicians, include it all in our annual reports and promotion materials. We cannot downplay the work or its importance and its impact. If we do these things, I believe that there will be a correlated impact on student recruitment efforts. If that is the case, I know that my university, and I am sure all of ours, will take notice. That notice likely will not be more pay or more time to do the work – at least not immediately – but the work that we do will be valued, we may receive additional funding to help our programs and students, and we hopefully will keep our jobs and programs.

    #2 – Even though none of my comments above really touch on this issue, I would like to see more discussion about departmental competition and collaboration (the issues highlighted in facilitator points #3 and #5). How can we work jointly for all of our success rather than seeing each other as competitors (or is this even possibly when really we are all being forced very much into a tight and fierce competitive market)? Additionally, I would like to see the NCPH – perhaps this group – create some guidance on the value of resource sharing (as #5 suggests).

  4. I would be interested in creating a series of recommendations on establishing effective partnerships. I imagine that a detailed outline of best practices for creating MOUs, setting up internships, divvying funding, etc. would be extremely helpful for academics and practitioners alike.

  5. Let me start by thanking the facilitators. This has been a fascinating exercise and I’m looking forward to seeing you all in a few weeks.

    Question 1. I think the crux lies with who universities serve. Universities generally serve their students first, and the public second. Public history, I think, is far more different from academic history than is often admitted. In my 3½ semesters at UMKC I have learned that public history is far more collaborative than the relatively solo endeavor of scholarly research (despite what acknowledgements sections say). I am vehemently opposed to unpaid internships at the graduate level. Students at all levels should be given academic credit for volunteer work, if it meets certain standards. Public history classroom projects should also be geared to give students the practical instruction they would receive in unpaid internships. For example, if a public history student is taking a course on the civil war, they should have the option to produce an exhibit outline rather than a paper. They need to learn how to make an argument to the public, not to other historians. This disconnect may not exist in programs where the public history degree is fully separate, but I think when recruiting students, history faculty (PhD’s all) need to be aware that the PhD method may not be suitable for some students whose professional goals are very different.

    Question 2: I can think of two products/outcomes. The first would be a strategy for department leaders to make their case to their institutions for the value of the types of collaboration we are talking about. Second, we could try to create some sort of followup effort that involves some parties from these different institutions we’ve talked about. For example, could NCPH get public health officials, librarians, medical professionals, and public history faculty in a room together to tackle public health issues?

  6. First, thank you for bringing all of this together—I’ve gotten a great deal out of reading all of these!

    It’s late March, so I have recruitment on the brain, but I think that having ongoing, signature projects that involve students and partners across institutions and at different levels–undergrad, grad, alumni (this is another conversation but one I am very interested in)—would make it easier to identify and draw students from a wider variety of backgrounds. My program is beginning a grant-funded community initiative this year and I have been happy to find that being able to talk in-depth about this with potential students has changed recruitment quite a bit (and made this better) because it helps admitted students see clearly the kind of work they would be doing here.

    With regard to departmental competition and collaboration I see a few different outcomes and challenges. First of all, cross-institutional ongoing projects (as opposed to the contingent, fly-by-night collaborations I sometimes find myself organizing last minute as a semester is about to start) might encourage non-PH faculty and students in our departments (and across our institutions) to work these projects into their own curricula. It would also probably require multi-year course planning, and support of such from chairs and curricular committees. I think doing multi-year plans is a good exercise and something everyone should be doing more, so this might be a good opportunity for instilling this kind of practice?

    These kinds of projects will surely also be more grant-able. We struggle with finding funding for MA students, writing fellowships into grants is one way to hopefully give more students access to graduate education. But this is fraught—I don’t want to shift the responsibility of student funding away from the university and onto the project.

    Finally, workload. From lack of experience, I can’t figure out if managing a long-term project like this would more or less challenging. I think probably more at the beginning and less later. How to make sure that there’s not burnout out of the gate? I don’t have a good answer for that except that I would like to make sure that the administrative responsibility (and emotional investment! can we make this a part of the discussion?) doesn’t fall solely on one individual or institution. But how would we actually do this?

    As for outcomes, I like both ideas above; I’d also be interested in thinking through a few sample organizational models for identifying and administering such projects—who would need to get involved? Who would do what? How would communication work and be regularized?

    Looking forward to talking more next month!

  7. I totally agree on a pitch or set of talking points to use with administrators. Maybe we can think about this as two pitches–the highest common denominator pitch and the lowest common denominator one.

    For the highest common denominator, our pitch is about how we can be part of reshaping the field of public history writ large through our work. I’ve been thinking about the idea of operational unity lately. The idea comes from the black power movement particularly Maulana Karenga’s US organization which was a cultural nationalist group that most famously created Kwanzaa. Karenga was asking how black power organizations could be effective in making change even if they didn’t have large memberships. He suggested that numerous groups could have an overarching goal that they would all worked towards in their own ways. This operational unity allowed them to have a bigger impact together than alone without getting bogged down in making every group agree on specific tactics (which is one of the historical problems leftist movements have faced). Can we use this concept to argue to administrators that collaboration between us is necessary for us to achieve a goal broader than simply bigger enrollments in our programs? For me, that driving force is making public history more inclusive in terms of who works in the field and what stories we tell in public.

    But we also need to think pragmatically, too (lowest common denominator). Collaboration can be more efficient. It can allow us not to duplicate resources. Instead of having every public history program trying to offer everything, we can each develop our own specialties and strengths that, because we are linked together, create a complete package. We can call this the Miracle on 34th Street approach. Instead of pretending Macy’s has everything, we send students to Gimbel’s when they have the toy we don’t have in stock. Secondly, can this help alleviate faculty burnout by distributing work across campuses and faculty?

    Rutgers could be a really interesting case study for this work. We have public history and digital humanities on all of our campuses. In general, our faculty don’t work together across campuses, but in public history we have some relationships that are already in place, in part because I’ve worked at 2 of our 3 main campuses (again, personal connections matter). We’re piloting, for example, an online grad course on managing cultural and historical organizations in the fall that will be offered by RU-N, but open to students at all three campuses. The Telling Untold Histories Unconference is an annual event that is supported by all three campuses and draws non-university public historians. Perhaps we can be a test case?

  8. Thank you again to Denise for managing the group, and to Kathy for pulling together this summary. The ease with which the group has outlined the many challenges to the theme indicate the complexity of even envisioning inter-institutional collaboration, let alone implementing it!
    Considering the first prompt, on “transforming our thinking,” I believe the slow and steady work of piloting collaborations and producing case studies will create a foundation for more precise best practices or prescriptions. Visibility of collaborations is very important (maybe even a blog that we update once or twice a semester). For this, it will be important to have some consistent way of assessing and reflecting on pilot projects. Perhaps the group could produce a short info sheet—“So you want to try inter-institutional collaboration”—that can outline a dozen or so things to keep in mind, aimed at public history educators. This could serve as a basis for after-action reports, reflections, and assessments that would act as a resource for others in the future. So, I guess this is a response to a bit of prompt #1 and #2.
    I also love the idea of an adaptable template about collaboration, designed for Chairs and Deans.

  9. Building off Denise’s comment, I would like to see our group develop an adaptable mission statement that forces public history organizations (university departments, state historical agencies, nonprofits, etc.) to reconceive of their mission in broader terms. Specifically, I’d like to see more institutions recognize collaboration and partnership as an integral part of their work. In the original working group proposal, the facilitators noted that Illinois State University system recognized that their goal was not only to build strong academic programs but strengthen public history institutions. across the state. I would very much like to see more organizations reflect on how their work builds on the efforts of other organizations in their community.

    I wouldn’t limit this mission statement or pitch to university administrators. To effect even small change, like the adoption of regional or state-wide internship guidelines and contracts, we need all public history organizations invested. In fact, some of these smaller changes might be the most important achievements cross-institutional partnerships can bring. In rethinking institutional autonomy, departmental competition and collaboration, and student projects and internships, we should keep in mind that our field isn’t defined by institutional boundaries. Public historians work in universities, local, state, and federal governments, museums, nonprofits, and a variety of other organizations, and we all have a stake in public history education. On that note, another potential outcome could be a proposal for state-wide (or regional) meetings that explore avenues for cross-institutional partnerships. We already have events where these conversations can be initiated: Mini-Cons, unconferences, or state historical society meetings. Perhaps our group could develop a plan to encourage these state-level meetings and then help set the tone and guide these conversations based on our discussion in April.

  10. Thanks everyone all these insightful suggestions about the contributions we might make coming out of the conversations we’ve had. As your replies, and my own assessment of the focus of many of the examples of collaboration challenges in the last round suggested, two items stand out in particular.

    One is the need for the kinds of model MOU’s and collaborative outlines that might ease the integration of missions across the distinctive, or competing, kinds of institutions in which public historians who want to collaborate work. These seem like the would be very helpful hands-on outcomes of our discussions.

    Another is related to issues that seem to me endemic to pubic history collaborations, and in a way prior to the working documents described above. That is a process for reckoning with different scales of purpose that collaborating institutions might have (e.g. local history, institutional public engagement, the broader public elaboration of current academic historical interpretations related to urgent and divisive social issues, etc.). Borrowing from a process that one of my daughters is involved in at school, I wonder if we need a kind of restorative conversation-done as restorative justice in schools, but perhaps involving restorative missions and goals across institutions for the context we are discussing-that could tackle these sometimes divisive missions in constructive ways. If that is too process-oriented (that’s a default mode of mine, not always a helpful one), perhaps considering these issues in concocting the kinds of documents Devin is talking about with regard to articulating the kinds of challenges would be a more practical approach, which could propose strategies, that prospective inter-institutional collaborators should consider in constructing their shared or blended missions.

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