In Colonial Academic Alliance Everyone Is on the Same Team

Posted: January 25, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By David Driver

On the basketball court and soccer fields, the 12 members of the Colonial Athletic Association can be intense rivals.

But thanks to the Colonial Academic Alliance, the students, faculty and staff who attend CAA schools are teammates.

The Colonial Academic Alliance is the academic consortium that links 12 colleges and universities in programs that improve the quality of teaching and learning for all. The alliance was created by CAA presidents in 2002, and is administered by the provosts of the member schools.

Two years ago this month, Mary Frances Forcier took over as the first director of the alliance, which is based at George Mason. There are more than 200,000 students and about 10,000 faculty at the member schools.

“We compete athletically, but we collaborate academically. It is not primarily an athletic initiative, but it runs parallel to the conference. It’s a way of building relationships among the conference schools by working with them to share resources and develop new programs,” says Forcier.

One of the key programs of the alliance is the annual undergraduate research conference, which brings together some of the best students from member schools. About 90 students from all 12 schools attended the conference last year at James Madison University. The event, by coincidence, was held during Final Four weekend, and the conference ended in time for participants to cheer on member school George Mason in the national semifinals in men’s basketball.

While the alliance is not primarily an athletic endeavor, Forcier notes, the success of the conference’s athletic programs can bring additional visibility to its members’ academic programs. “We have seen how much visibility athletics can bring to academics,” she says, noting Mason’s Final Four run last season.

The alliance seeks to involve as many of its members as possible in its programs. This year’s undergraduate research conference, for example, will be held in April at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and the 2008 event is slated for Towson University near Baltimore.

In addition to George Mason, JMU, UNC-Wilmington and Towson, other CAA members are the University of Delaware, Drexel University, Georgia State University, Hofstra University, Northeastern University, Old Dominion University, Virginia Commonwealth University and the College of William and Mary.

One of the member provosts serves as chair of the alliance’s executive committee on a rotating basis; this academic year’s chair is Ron Henry, Provost at Georgia State.

Forcier reports to Mason Provost Peter Stearns and the 12 CAA provosts, and talks regularly with CAA Commissioner Tom Yeager. Forcier says the alliance is modeled after the Committee of Institutional Cooperation, which the Big 10 conference began in the 1950s.

“Not all 12 schools have to be involved in everything,” says Forcier. “But critical mass is important. The only way you can make a consortium work is if it benefits in some way, through some program, all 12 schools.”

One of those programs might involve the coordination of study-abroad opportunities for students at CAA schools. Mason student Lexi Soya, for example, will study in Paris this semester through a program that originated at the University of Delaware. But her credits will come through Mason.

Alliance schools also share information that is pertinent to each campus. The senior student affairs officers recently met at George Mason. They are planning staff exchanges, a conference on residential life and “alternative spring breaks” that would involve students from CAA schools.

About a half dozen other CAA “interest groups” have met in the past two years to develop ways in which they can work together. Language department chairs, for example, are looking into the feasibility of offering less commonly taught languages, such as Korean or Farsi, using distance learning or intensive language summer institutes.

Richard Florida, Hirst Professor in the School of Public Policy, spoke in September as part of the Vision Series at Mason; his presentation will be shared with the other campuses through a television series, “CAA Perspectives,” that will air on the various campus television systems.

Because the CAA stretches from Boston to Atlanta, Forcier says it is important to discover not only what the schools have in common, but also their unique programs that can be shared with other members.

Several member schools are located close to the Atlantic Ocean, which might foster a meaningful exchange of ideas between marine science students and faculty, as well as provide opportunities for “inland” students to take advantage of coastal opportunities.

“All of these universities are willing to work together in new ways to benefit their students and faculty members,” says Forcier, who has a bachelor’s degree from Lehigh University and a PhD in history and policy from Carnegie Mellon University.

“The alliance exists to make that collaboration happen.”

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