Monday, July 16, 2007

An Agenda for Branch Campus Research

Offering almost any generalization about branch campuses is difficult, because there is precious little research to support one's conclusions. Part of the problem is that we have no national-level data base on branches. In fact, the interested individual will find very little in the way of descriptive information that can be used to compare one institution's branches to another. The situation probably is less difficult within a given state, since policy makers will almost certainly have restricted the options pursued by various colleges or universities, but even within a state there are significant variations in, say, expectations of faculty or budget oversight.

The core problem is that branches developed "under the radar," and to meet some more or less local need. An urban institution may have opened a suburban branch, to make attendance more convenient; a rural institution may have opened an inner-city branch to offer graduate programs to adult learners; a university may have opened a branch on a community college campus to facilitate degree completion. The point is that, if you go looking for best practices to help you establish your first branch campus, you will be sorely disappointed.

Thus, this post is one of many calls for more research on branch campuses. However, I would like to propose something of a research agenda, at least from a macro perspective. To that end, in my previous post, I proposed a description of what I'd like to call an idealized branch campus. (Not ideal, from the perspective of people working on branches, but characteristic, in the sense of reflecting my own guess about what is most common.)

I suggested that the idealized campus is a permanent physical location, with at least some complete or nearly complete academic programs. There are resident faculty members, and services are available on site that are necessary to support faculty and students. There is a budget for this location, with day-to-day spending decisions made locally. On the other hand, academic control is located primarily at the main campus, which has to approve programs. Enrollment, typically, ranges from 700-3500 headcount.

Although I'd be happy to collaborate with other individuals who are willing to do most of the grunt work to collect and analyze data, I have no plans to conduct empirical research, myself. If I were to begin research, however, here is what I would do:

1. The first step would be to identify branches that fit my idealized model. I would distinguish between community college and university branches, but I'd collect data on both. My description is brief enough that finding campuses that fit shouldn't be too difficult, but it is important that they come from different states. I wouldn't worry about other aspects of mission or operations just yet, because I want the first cut to capture campuses that vary quite a lot on other dimensions.

2. Having identified my study group, I would construct a survey to obtain descriptive information about how these campuses operate. What types of programs are provided? What is the relationship of branch campus faculty to main campus departments? Where are decisions made about hiring and/or tenuring faculty? What is the title and authority of the branch campus's chief administrator? To whom does that administrator report? What services are provided? How is the budget obtained, and what is managed locally vs. at the main campus? All of these items could be teased out to create checklists or the like. The point is to expand the description of the idealized branch, including typical variations within the model.

3. It may reflect my own discipline, but I would probably try to do some more qualitative study on these campuses, seeking information about faculty and administrative perceptions toward the main campus, toward the formal mission, and toward worklife and career development issues.

The goal of this approach is to restrict the range of branch campuses being studied, in order to get a handle on typical variation within the study set. Having accomplished the goal, research can proceed in various directions. For example, one could study the idealized campuses more deeply, drilling into, say, the role and relationships of faculty members, or digging into mission or geographic differences to determine what effects they may have.

The obvious alternative is to use the idealized branches as a comparison group and to begin studying campuses that do not fit the description. Suppose everything is true of a set of branches, except that there are no full-time resident faculty. What follows? Can we get at least a sense of the value or the cost of maintaining a resident faculty? In the end, we might have a decent description, at least, of major types of branches, which future scholars could use to ask questions that can be meaningfully examined.

Through this post, I am trying more than anything to make suggestions about how research on branch campuses might be approached in a more programmatic way than seems possible today. If we create a more narrow, idealized picture of a typical or common branch, we might at least get something going. Comments or reactions to my post, including other ideas on how research might proceed, are welcome.

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