How to Collaborate Across Institutions: Dr. Meredith Weiss, Director, CUNY/SUNY Southeast Asia Consortium

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Dr. Meredith Weiss, professor of political science at the University at Albany, SUNY and director of the SUNY/CUNY Southeast Asia Consortium, dropped by the Luce office and shared insights into the initiative's journey, lessons learned, and future directions. This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Luce Foundation: What motivated you to propose this work to us?

Meredith Weiss: The Luce Foundation indirectly supported a pilot project called the "Public Universities Consortium," sparking interest in collaboration, so we had the germ of an idea. I also had a Luce Fellowship for a semester at the Australian National University in graduate school, so I was familiar with Luce from long back!

Despite their significant population of Southeast Asian and Southeast Asia-focused students and faculty, SUNY and CUNY lack institutional infrastructure for Southeast Asian Studies. We formed the SUNY/CUNY Southeast Asia Consortium (SEAC) as an interdisciplinary initiative to promote research, teaching, and related efforts around Southeast Asia and Southeast Asian Americans statewide. We aimed to develop institutional infrastructure and robust connections across New York's public university systems. Having seen Luce support similar initiatives elsewhere, we thought SEAC seemed like a good fit.

Luce Foundation: You're dealing with a vast system, a "64-campus, 370,000-student State University of New York (SUNY) and 25-campus, 270,000-student City University of New York (CUNY), with the wider New York public and policy community, and with counterparts in Southeast Asia,” and the statewide SEAC links faculty, students, alumni, and surrounding communities. How did you make this consortium work?

Meredith Weiss: At first, when we had the Public Universities Consortium, I was running things on my own, which wasn't feasible long-term. People were excited to connect with us once we launched those webinars, though. When we announced the formation of SEAC, we further leveraged social media and press releases, and now we had a core group of collaborators. Even more people emerged. There was a Malaysian economist on the faculty at my university, a man who worked with butterflies in temples in Thailand, more students and faculty, and other connections from friends and colleagues.

I've also cultivated connections with individuals across various programs and institutions. These personal relationships have facilitated collaboration, enabling the seamless sharing of resources and expertise.

Third, we've established a virtual network spanning various disciplines and campuses, promoting visibility and collaboration. Many people volunteer to help, and we also share administrative support to help with publicity and material preparation.

Luce Foundation: Visibility and connection seem crucial. How has the grant facilitated this?

Meredith Weiss: The grant provided visibility and signaled the consortium's existence. We could say, hey, we are here and then build the cross-institutional network. Through virtual meetings, film screenings, and newsletters, we've connected with over 250 individuals. We've also supported ongoing initiatives like Buffalo State’s Southeast Asia Week, enhancing community engagement.

Luce Foundation: What challenges have you encountered in facilitating cross-disciplinary collaborations, and how have you addressed them?

Meredith Weiss: Due to bureaucratic hurdles, cross-disciplinary and cross-institutional collaborations are often challenging. For instance, establishing a semester-long course presented significant logistical challenges, particularly in navigating institutional rules and regulations. We initially intended for seamless registration between SUNY and CUNY institutions, but the course faced complexities, leading to its reconfiguration: students now register for it as an independent study course. Despite the course's successful implementation, institutional barriers hinder efforts to institutionalize similar programs and initiatives.

Additionally, collaborating across institutions involves connecting institutional bureaucracies, which poses challenges for introducing instructional innovations and programs.

Securing institutional support has also been complex. These challenges extend to grant management processes, particularly aligning institutional grants with existing frameworks and expectations. Grant management staff and systems may only be accustomed to standard contracts or research grants. So, we have had to work with the SUNY Research Foundation as it navigates through that.

Luce Foundation: That sounds very complicated. How did you navigate these challenges? What makes it worth all the trouble?

Meredith Weiss: Institutions like the City College of New York, host to our recent Philippines-focused exhibition and related events, have been incredibly supportive, providing the necessary infrastructure and resources to overcome these obstacles. Cultivating open communication and understanding between different campuses and disciplines has been vital in navigating the complexities of collaborative projects. We've seen this bear fruit, mainly as we can create interdisciplinary programs that transcend individual institutions’ capabilities, providing more significant impact and resource utilization.

Dr. Weiss (second right) with the RESBAK! Exhibit team.

Luce Foundation: What advice would you give others to help them navigate these tough silos, bureaucracy, and other obstacles?

Meredith Weiss: I honestly think I'm doing very poorly. I'm very impatient.

But seriously, I would recommend developing personal relationships across different institutions and disciplines. It's essential to have a clear understanding of the bureaucratic hurdles involved in cross-institutional collaborations and grant management. My long tenure in Southeast Asian studies has allowed me to leverage these connections, which have proven invaluable for my work and for introducing individuals to different projects and networks, particularly for newcomers who may not have established connections yet. These connections are forged through formal channels or serendipitous encounters, which significantly contribute to the vitality and impact of Southeast Asian studies programs.

Second, I suggest having at least one person with expertise to lean on for guidance and support. For me, one such person is Vince Boudreau, the president of City College and a political scientist focusing on Philippine politics. He is intimately familiar with the CUNY system and public universities more broadly. And he's been quite supportive. So go to others, even if they are not within your institution.

Third, seek out supportive administrators who can offer guidance and assistance in establishing sustainable initiatives within the institution or consortium. Look for champions within institutions who advocate for innovative approaches. In our case, we have utilized existing resources within our home institutions, such as centers for teaching and learning, to access expertise and support for developing curriculum modules or training sessions.

Fourth, exercise patience and persistence in navigating bureaucratic hurdles and resource constraints inherent in academic initiatives. Though academia has its unique silos, I would say these virtues help no matter where you are.

Finally, I also recommend launching initiatives focusing on innovating in restrictive environments and exploring ideas for resource sharing and sustainability. Finding collaboration and resource-sharing opportunities with other institutions or networks to enhance program sustainability and effectiveness is critical. Using all the free resources available at your institution, to whatever extent possible, is also essential.

Luce Foundation: Those are helpful insights. Sustainability is a core concern for funded programs, especially in an environment where funding trends align with the zeitgeist and can be fickle. How do you approach the issue of sustainability in your collaborative efforts?

Meredith Weiss: Sustainability is paramount for the long-term success of any collaborative venture. It's not just about initiating projects but also about ensuring their continuity and impact. In addition to sustained cooperation and mutual support, knowing what institutional resources are available for the network to access for free is also important.

Luce Foundation: Last but not least, can you provide an example of how you've tailored your projects to meet the diverse needs of student populations across different institutions?

Meredith Weiss: Certainly. My own approach is multifaceted, catering to students' diverse interests and backgrounds. From those with personal ties to Southeast Asia to others seeking broader insights into comparative politics, I design coursework and experiential learning opportunities that appeal to different student interests and levels of expertise.

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