Ringling student giving a presentation at the collaboratory in front of the class

Perspectives from a Grateful TPF Partner

Posted on July 18, 2017 by Larry Thompson

Editor's Note: Dr. Larry R. Thompson is President of Ringling College of Art and Design.

In 2009, I was contacted by The Patterson Foundation’s new President and CEO, Debra Jacobs, about the potential for an investment to Ringling College of Art and Design from the newly established Foundation. What an exciting day to receive such a phone call! Debra asked me to think about an initiative that would be transformational for Ringling College and potentially for higher education, more broadly. She also advised that my idea should fit into The Patterson Foundation (TPF) family ethos of creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship.
Working within these parameters, and after many discussions and iterations, in 2010, the Governing Board of TPF accepted the partnership between Ringling College and TPF. Another incredible day!

So this is a bit of a retrospective, as our funding partnership is coming to a close; thus, I share this blog as a recap of our journey with TPF. Together, we created a new program designed to transform Ringling College of Art and Design and provide a model for other higher education institutions nationwide. It has truly been a journey, and I am pleased to reflect here on lessons learned, as we together conceived a complex idea and brought it to reality.

After exploring a number of alternatives Ringling College might submit as ideas for engaging in a partnership with TPF, the one that resonated with the Foundation, and with me, was the concept of creating what I termed a “Collaboratory.” (I like to joke about one of the great perks of being the president of an art and design college is that I can make up words and no one really cares.)

The idea of a “Collaboratory” grew out of a new, revolutionary academic program we had recently established at Ringling College-- the Business of Art and Design (BOAD). Ringling was the first art college to infuse within its curriculum an undergraduate business program as part of its curricular offerings. The program is both a major where students earn a Bachelor of Arts degree, not a Bachelor of Fine Arts as in all the other majors, and the program also serves as a potential minor for those students in our other traditional art and design programs.

To make our Business of Art and Design (BOAD) program successful, we needed to teach the business program differently. While it is primarily a management program focused on creative industries and how to make other industries more creative, we also teach accounting, finance, etc., along with leadership skills and international business principles.

Our inaugural BOAD faculty member introduced project-based learning in her business classes. Further, she formed strong partnerships with various entities such as Cirque du Soleil and Disney Imagineering. Our students truly loved the experience of working on “real world” projects with these “real world” clients because it appealed to their visual and kinetic styles of learning. Some even made wonderful contacts as a result of these projects that led to careers at Disney, Google, Microsoft, Apple, etc.

Having witnessed the success of the project-based learning within our BOAD program, I thought about how great it would be if ALL students at our College could have this kind of experience with “real world” clients and “real world” projects. A few members of our faculty were already incorporating real projects into their classes, but only a few. The problem I saw for students was that only students taking those particular classes could get this kind of experience. Alternatively, they might get this experience if they were chosen in a competitive process to become a member of the Design Center (an internship on campus where students work on college marketing pieces or pieces for non-profit organizations). My concern: What about all the other students?

So, the idea of “The Collaboratory” was formed, and TPF fully embraced our idea and agreed to work with us as partners to bring the project to fruition. Given the amount of resources, time, and staff required for such an endeavor, I knew there was absolutely no way our small-but-mighty art college could allocate the resources even to begin exploring an idea as monumental and transformational as The Collaboratory.

With the concept in hand, the hard part began. And this gets to the heart of this blog post: providing a brief chronicle of the journey, but focusing on lessons learned.

  1. Time and Patience.
    A great idea doesn’t just realize itself, even if there are resources to support it. It takes time, people, patience, and an understanding of the culture of the organization.

    Implementing this project took three to four times the amount of time I ever thought it would. A college culture is very egalitarian; it is not top down. Everyone, not just the senior administration and Board of Trustees, has a say (or wants a say) in what happens on a college campus.

    So, the first obstacle was to find a way to present this idea of the value of experiential learning in a non-threatening way to the faculty, and to help them learn about, and embrace, the concept. Presenting an idea of the President does not always work so well, so we enlisted the help of the Vice President for Academic Affairs, who, in turn, talked directly with the department heads and key faculty members to have them think about and talk through the idea. This was a long process because the pace needed to move slowly if the idea was ever going to become part of our culture.

    Unlike most colleges, Ringling College is quite nimble as an academic institution—but no matter how flexible and nimble, it still takes time for people to process and accept a new, major idea of infusing experiential learning within the curriculum.

    Lesson Learned: It is perfectly natural for everyone to want to place action steps, completion, etc. in an exact time frame. After all, that’s how all of us learned to plan effectively. But, in this case, checking the boxes and putting stringent time frames is actually not the way to go. Patience is a virtue – and in this case, the key. Trying to rush something for the purpose of meeting timelines simply does not work if the culture of the organization does not embrace such a thing. First and foremost, the organizational culture must be embraced as it is, even if the end goal is to modify that culture in some way.

  2. Getting the Right People on the Bus.
    As we began to gain acceptance of the idea of The Collaboratory, the next step was to find someone who could work with faculty, staff, students, and clients to lead the effort. It was imperative that we follow our processes and procedures, and insure we did a very thorough national search process for the person who was going to lead the charge. We were sure to include faculty, staff, and students on the search committee because those were the constituencies with whom he/she would be working.

    Going through a national search, even with the help of a national search firm, takes further time and patience. The job description had to be just right, it had to be in the right publications and online data bases, and it required someone with a very unique set of skills. After all, at the time nothing else like this even existed. Honestly, at times it seemed like this idea would never happen due to the flow (or lack thereof) of the academic calendar, as the summer is lost time. Indeed, our search process took over a year and a half, and even though we kept everyone informed of our progress – albeit slow – we at Ringling College felt guilty about how slow the process took. TPF was very understanding, but the length of the process felt uncomfortable on our side because we agreed to partner a long time ago and everyone wanted to see something happen.

    Lesson Learned: Although not different from number 1 above, time and patience is necessary to get the right people in place in order to properly execute. It is important that everyone involved understand this aspect completely. Those communicating about the progress need to explain, and those being communicated to need to be empathetic and even reassure people that they understand the need for time. After all, no one wants to rush for the sake of rushing.

  3. Fitting an Entrepreneurial Enterprise within an Institution.
    Once we hired the person to lead the effort, we needed to establish mechanisms (processes and procedures) to make The Collaboratory concept work. This became one of the more difficult aspects of making this whole project come to life.

    Again, even though Ringling College is small and nimble, it has existing operational processes and procedures that are similar to any other college or university. We looked at other colleges as models to set up our systems. Creating a new entrepreneurial subcomponent of the institution that operates more as a start-up within an existing, well established organizational operation is a bit like infecting a virus into a human body. The white blood cells come out and attack this foreign object. This is especially true if the new group has to move fast and has to do things the institution has never had to do before.

    Lesson Learned: I thought the biggest obstacle to implementation of The Collaboratory would be the buy-in of the faculty. Instead, the operational side of the house seemed even more difficult. We had to find ways to deal with issues I had never imagined: how to reward students, how to compensate facilitators, how to include international students, how to resolve tax issues, etc. etc. etc. etc. The list goes on. The mistake I made was not including enough of the key players from the operational part of the institution early enough in the process. What I know now is that you need to include ALL constituencies and bring the operational part of the organization to the table early on as the concept is being devised so that they are not tasked with putting a bandage on every transaction.

  4. Be Careful What You Wish For – Success Can Be Dangerous.
    One of the elements of The Collaboratory initiative was the need to bring in clients who wanted to bring in “real world” projects to the College for students to work on. One of our imagined concerns was that there would not be enough projects and that the idea might collapse because of a lack of industry partners. Well, that never happened. In fact, just the opposite occurred. When we went out publically with The Collaboratory concept, companies and individuals seemed to relish the idea that they might have the opportunity to work with our students. We were actually overwhelmed with interest. The word went out with our internal publicity and the help of TPF and it was hugely successful. However, we had not yet created the appropriate infrastructure to handle that kind of demand. This is sometimes the issue of a start-up enterprise.

    We scrambled. We rushed to find faculty who would be facilitators, alumni who could help with facilitation, students who would participate, and the list goes on. And we had to find a way to track the projects and what was happening. It was happening fast.

    Lesson Learned: Probably because getting The Collaboratory to start took so long, we were overly eager to move forward when we found someone to lead it and as a result we probably overdid our promotion of The Collaboratory and its opportunities. We opened too fast and had too many requests that we were not prepared to meet in a quality way. So, we learned that you should not promote more than you can deliver in case the “best of all worlds” happens. Unfortunately, this situation led to some disappointment and disgruntlement by the faculty, the students, and the clients and it harmed the trajectory of The Collaboratory itself.

  5. Remember the Core “Why” of the Initiative.
    As we scrambled to accommodate the clients and students, we began to lose sight of why this initiative started in the first place. The Collaboratory was a brilliant concept and it began because of what students were to learn as they were learning in the experiential learning process in the Business of Art and Design classes and other art and design classes on campus. We needed to remember that it was ALL about educating the student, not providing the product nor service.

    As more clients came through the door, we needed to vet them appropriately to see what fit and what worked, and what did not work. It came to my attention that some clients might be coming to find a way to get “cheap” or “free” design services by using our students as part of The Collaboratory. That was not the purpose of this initiative, but in order to satisfy potential clients we lost sight of the true purpose, which was to give students real world experience but also to help them learn from the experience and improve their hard and soft skills.

    So, we have had to recalibrate and teach the clients as much as we teach the students. If someone wants “cheap” services this is not the place to come. We need clients using The Collaboratory to help us teach students as they do the projects with them. We want the students to present to the clients and have the clients critique them as the project progresses. In the end, it is not about the ultimate product or service, it is about the student learning—the experience.

    Lesson Learned: When going 100mph, it is difficult to stop and remember why an initiative happened in the first place. In our case, we had to take a respite and reflect because we heard feedback from students and faculty that they were resentful about feeling “used” in some way. We, of course, never intended that to be the case, but we lost sight of the real reason for creating The Collaboratory experience. So, let me repeat: Remember why the initiative started in the first place and always go back to that purpose.

  6. Celebrate the Successes.
    What often happened during our journey was that we, at the College, tended to focus on what did not happen right, not on what we did well. The Collaboratory initiative has been extremely successful; however, because an educational institution is very adept at critical thinking (that’s what we do and what we teach), we tend to see only the negative side of the ledger. Do not lose sight of all the positives and be sure to celebrate those successes with everyone involved.

    I continually try to remind people that despite the challenges, look at what has happened and take pride in that.


a. We have partnered with hundreds of companies and organizations where students at Ringling College are getting “real world” experience working on “real world” projects. A few of these would have happened without the partnership of TPF, but not very many. Most that have occurred are a direct result of the excitement this partnership initiative started among our faculty, staff, students, and other partners.

b. Students learned the reality of the real world. Some learned how a client may not like their idea no matter how brilliant or beautiful the student thinks it is because the client may have their own ideas. Some learned how to present their ideas better. Some learned to accept criticism. But, mostly they just learned what it’s like to do their profession outside the classroom. And, again, learning is the whole purpose of this initiative.

c. The faculty and students embraced the idea of “Experiential Learning” and overwhelmingly voted to include this as part of our Quality Enhancement Plan for our regional accrediting body, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC). The Quality Enhancement Plan is a required element for accreditation that requires an institution to develop a plan to improve student learning and that plan must be endorsed by faculty and students and be implemented in a five-year time span. This endorsement of the faculty and students was a real vote of confidence in the idea of real world experience with real world clients. That showed me that The Collaboratory idea really became part of the Ringling College culture.

d. More faculty have incorporated Collaboratory projects within their classes.

e. Most clients have expressed overwhelming satisfaction with the results from the students.

f. Ringling College has been able to now establish the Collaboratory Commitment, where the College guarantees to every student entering the institution that he/she will have the opportunity to work on a real world project with a real client before they graduate.

g. Ringling College has made numerous presentations at academic conferences explaining The Collaboratory and the student learning outcomes.

h. Students are able to build their portfolios and show potential employers real projects they worked on and make contacts with a number of firms partnering with Ringling College.

i. The experience helps resolve the recent graduate dilemma: “I can’t get a job because I don’t have experience; I don’t have experience because I don’t have a job.” This gives students experience that is valuable on their resumes as they pursue careers.

I cannot begin to express my gratitude to TPF for agreeing to embark on this journey with Ringling College to develop the concept of The Collaboratory and bring it to fruition. It has truly helped to transform learning on our campus. And, it never could have happened without their guidance, support, and patience. Thank you.

Leave a comment

You are commenting as guest.