Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Characteristics of a branch campus

So, what are the defining characteristics of a branch campus? That's not an easy question to answer, because there is no agreed upon definition. I suppose there is an implication that there must be some "main" campus, hub, or mother ship, in order for a branch to exist. Clearly, there is an implication that the branch is somehow in a dependent relationship to the central campus, at least around curriculum matters. Conversely, institutions in a true system, such as those in North Carolina or California are not "branches," because they do have separate curricula and some independent governance processes, although such institutions can and do develop branches of their own.

Jim Fonseca, who is dean of Ohio University's Zanesville Campus, uncovered two formal definitions of branch campuses. According to the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education (CIHE), a branch campus is geographically removed from the main campus, offers 50% or more of an academic program leading to a degree, certificate or other recognized credential, is permanent in nature, has its own faculty and administration, and has its own budgetary and hiring authority. The U. S. National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) defines a branch as a "campus or site of an educational institution that is not temporary, is located in a community beyond a reasonable commuting distance from its parent institution, and offers organized programs of study, not just courses."

I think these definitions are good starting points. Offering a handful of courses in a shopping mall, at a high school, or in a place of business, does not seem to create a branch. I'd call that a site. However, I'd also make a distinction between what I'd call a branch campus and an outreach center. The problem, as you'll discover quickly if you attend NABCA or RBCA meetings, is that there are significant exceptions to any defining principle you'd care to express. Moreover, institutions do not consistently report statistics, or even addresses, for branch campuses and centers to national data bases.

Given that I am doing the writing here, let me share my own preferred descriptions of a branch campus and an outreach center. Think of these as idealized or prototypical descriptions, consistent with the CIHE or IPEDS definitions, but understand that individual entities will fit the description more or less well.

A branch campus is established by an existing institution, in order to make higher education more readily accessible to people where they live and work. It has a permanent facility, usually free standing. There is a local administration, providing a reasonably wide range of student services and support programs, although not the range one would see at the main campus. This idealized branch campus has a resident faculty, but curriculum control and the establishment of minimum faculty credentials come primarily from the main campus. I agree with CIHE and IPEDS that there must be geographic separation between the branch and main campuses, but I know the distance can range from just a few miles to hundreds of miles. Distance from the main campus doesn't seem to tell us much. I'd focus more on the administrative distinctions and decision making authority. In the end, a branch is a branch because it lacks autonomy on curriculum and faculty matters.

What I call an outreach center looks a lot like a branch campus. The difference, to me, is that there probably are no resident faculty members and the programs and services are more limited. Personally, I'm not keen on referring to a location as a branch, if it is offering exactly one program (say, running a law school), and I'd bet that such places don't think of themselves as a branch, especially if they provide the only location for the program. I also struggle with calling a location that has no resident faculty a "campus." That probably reflects my own experience and my bias as a former branch campus faculty member. On the other hand, if there are resident faculty, I have no problem referring to a university location as a branch, if it happens to be located on, say, a community college campus, with or without a separate building.

If you accept my idealized concept of centers and campuses, you will find that many, perhaps most, institutions do not fit perfectly. The reality is that branches developed to meet particular needs of institutions or even state-level policy makers. No one regulated these developments, at least in a serious way, and no one was writing about the phenomenon, despite the remarkable expansion across the country and around the world. As Jim Fonseca says, branch campuses developed under the radar of people who write about higher education. Yet, I'd estimate that well over 1,000,000 students attend branch campuses and outreach centers each year.

There are still other "definitional" matters to be considered. One of my own favorite topics is the emergence of twigs. Twigs are branches of branches. In most cases, I think a twig would tend to fit my notion of a center, rather than a campus, but the point is that they were created and are administered via the branch campus, rather than the main campus. As always, I have no data, but my strong impression is that twigs are expanding rapidly in number. I like the idea a lot. A twig is relatively low in overhead costs, but allows that blend of high touch to go with the use of technology to support students and expand access.

We have two such twigs at Ohio University. One is in Pickerington, Ohio, and is an extension of our Lancaster Campus. One is in Proctorville, administered by our Southern Campus. In both cases we have a number of classrooms, including computer labs and interactive television classrooms. There are no resident faculty, but we own the buildings and have a modest support staff that is very dedicated to assuring that students and faculty members have a good experience. Pickerington, in its present form, is the older of the two, and brings our relatively rural institution into the Columbus metropolitan area, getting us close to a very large urban market. It has grown rapidly and been a great financial success.

I also want to mention some of the typical issues that emerge with branch campuses. As a psychology professor, I could suggest a defnition of "branchness" that is based on the psychological characteristics of the people who work there. For example, nearly every branchperson I've met has something of a chip on his or her shoulder. Branch folks feel unappreciated and undervalued by the main campus. They also feel as if the main campus unreasonably, unfairly, and probably foolishly limits their development. In effect, people on branch campuses tend to feel suspended in a perpetual state of adolescence, blocked from maturing into fully adult institutions. Imagine how frustrated staff working at a twig could feel!

I spent 23 years working on branch campuses, so I often share these frustrations. On the other hand, for the past eight-plus years, I've been on the main campus, watching over five branches. From a main campus point of view, branches were created by the main campus to accomplish some main campus purpose. The purpose may have been to generate revenue, to respond to some political pressure, to block some other institution's expansion, or even honestly to expand access and opportunity. But the core values of the institution developed, historically, at that main campus. Thus, academic departments have real concerns about standards or quality, as perceived by them. Budget and administrative support issues can further complicate the relationship. Not having direct oversight of the branches leads to worry about what is happening "out there." The natural, first response of main campus academic and adminstrative units is to keep the branches on a short leash, lest they "run amok." (I've actually heard people say those words: "We need to keep the campuses from running amok.")

For their part, the branch campus faculty and staff tend to feel that they should be entitled to serve their communities and students. They often feel that main campus people do not respect the professional judgment of branch campus faculty and staff and unfairly limt them. Hence, a significant issue to consider: To what extent does the branch campus have the obligation, right, and authority to meet the needs of its own community, if those needs conflict with the perceived mission and values of the main campus that created the branch?

Given these feelings, it is easy to understand why many branch campus folks object to the term "main" campus. It seems to affirm the priority and authority, against which the branch campus strains. Thus, we get terms like "mother ship," which is cute enough, I suppose. Personally, I actually prefer the term "main." To me, the dangerous ground for the branch campus is where its faculty and staff construct a version of reality that feels good, but fails to recognize the political reality of their existance. Branch campuses succeed to the extent that they play the political game well. Getting to "yes" requires never forgetting who is on the other side of the table and how they view the world.

As a sidebar here, I want to mention that, in Ohio and a few other states, a lot of people also object to the term "branch." In particular, the main-branch distinction seems hurtful. Presidents often make a point of saying that they lead one institution, geographically dispersed. I appreciate the feelings and sensibilities involved, although I've never been personally bothered by the terms. Increasingly, I use the term "branch," only because it is the most readily recognized term around the country.

A couple more thoughts on what makes a prototypical branch: I think size and programs matter. My own observation is that an entity with a headcount of 700 or less has a hard time maintaining the number of faculty and range of courses and services that define a prototypical branch. On the other end of the spectrum, as a campus grows beyond, maybe, 3500 heads, it becomes necessary to subdivide faculty and departmentalize staff that starts moving away from the close colleagiality and easy communication of that prototypical branch. I don't expect campuses with fewer than 700 students or more than 3500 to say, "I guess we aren't a branch, after all." I'm just trying to get to an idealized notion, from which we can think about variations.

Regarding programs, the question for me is the extent to which a campus has programs that are not available at the main campus. The prototypical branch, I think, offers a selected range of main campus programs, or partial programs, that meet its specific market need. Sometimes, however, there is a need that cannot be met by an existing main campus program. We offer technical associate degrrees at some of our campuses, for example, because there is no community or technical college to do so. With one exception, those degree programs are not available at the main campus. We also have one baccalaureate degree, the Bachelor's of Technical and Applied Studies, that is not offered at the main campus.

These programs take us a bit away from the prototype. At some institutions, however, entire schools or colleges are located at a branch, along with other, more typically branch-type programs. Thinking of all this as a continuum, at some point we wouldn't have branches, but a true multi-campus system. I'm not sure where that point lies, but not surprisingly, I'd tend to emphasize how folks at the no-longer-so main campus think about it, how the governance processes work, and whether the less-branch-like people view themselves as independent or an extension of a main campus.

Finally, I think I should acknowledge one more way of thinking about "branchness." Jim Fonseca is a geographer, and he tends to believe that everything comes back to geography. (I tolerate his point of view, but realize that in truth it all comes back to psychology.) It is interesting to think about geographic effects on the creation of branches. I mentioned how we worked to access the Columbus, Ohio, metropolitan area. Look around the country, and I think you will see that urban institutions tend to create branches in the suburbs, to facilitate access, whereas rural instiutions move toward urban areas, to access the larger population. Other geographic considerations could come into play, including employment, shopping, and transportation patterns.

This could go on and on. I hope my idea of the idealized branch makes some sense, and that people may want to comment or ask questions about the implications of variation. It is not my intention to exlcude anyone from the branch tent, who wishes to belong. I merely want to get to some core notion that can help organize thinking and discussion. My next post will offer a suggestion about how researchers might use the idealized branch to shape the design of studies that can help us understand what is developing out there, under the radar.

To summarize, then, my idealized branch is a permanent physical location, with at least some complete, or nearly complete academic programs. There are some resident faculty members, and services are available on site that are necessary to support faculty and students. There is a budget for this location, and day-t0-day spending decisions are made locally. Fundamental academic control, however, is at the main campus, which has to approve any expansion of programs. Enrollment typically is between 700 and 3500 students. Faculty know each other and their students, and staff typically wear more than one hat. Administrative offices are likely to be located in close proximity to each other, so that, at least from a student perspective, office boundaries are blurred.

I welcome comments.


Ken Shaw said...


As for the definition of a branch campus, the state of Florida has made an attempt at stratifying non-main campuses. I list these here for information sake and would like how other states clarify campuses other than the main campus.

BRANCH CAMPUS is defined as an instructional and administrative unit of a university that offers students upper-division and graduate programs as well as a wide range of support services. Distance learning techniques may be used to complement on-site instruction at all types of campuses. Branch campuses may be of various types to meet the particular needs of a region:

1. TYPE I BRANCH CAMPUS is defined as a major university operation which provides a broad range of instruction, numerous full and partial degree programs, research, and a full complement of student services in university administered facilities, which are mostly university owned or shared with a public community college. For efficiency of operation and provision of an adequate range of programs these campuses should obtain a funded enrollment level of 2,000 FTE.

2. TYPE II BRANCH CAMPUS is a large university operation, providing a range of instructional programs, many of which lead to a degree at the branch campus, some research, and full support services in university controlled facilities. Funded enrollment is between 1,000 and 2,000 FTE.

3. TYPE III BRANCH CAMPUS provides instruction in high demand disciplines, as well as necessary support services. Instructional and administrative functions are provided in facilities which may or may not be controlled by the university. Distance learning techniques may be used to provide a significant portion of the instructional program. Funded enrollment is between 300 and 1,000 FTE.

CENTER is defined as an instructional unit of a university or universities that offers a limited range of instructional programs or courses. Funded enrollment at a center will be fewer than 300 FTE.

SPECIAL PURPOSE CENTER is defined as a unit of a university that provides certain special, clearly defined programs or services, such as research, cooperative extension, or public service apart from the main campus, branch campus, or center.

INSTRUCTIONAL SITE is defined as an instructional unit of a university that offers a very limited range of instructional programs or courses, generally of short duration, in facilities not owned by the institution. Universities shall retain the ability to establish instructional sites to meet demonstrated needs without the necessity for approval of the Board.

SPECIAL PURPOSE SITE is defined as a unit of a state university that provides services of an educational nature that are other than instruction, research or administration. Universities shall retain the ability to establish special purpose sites to meet demonstrated needs without the necessity for approval of the Board.

Dr. Charles Bird said...

Ken: I know we've spoken directly about your comment, but I want to add something to this string on the blog.

I am very pleased to see this state-level set of definitions. I know that Florida may have more branches of various types than any other state. These definitions could allow a researcher to do a very nice job of organizing data. I'd encourage researchers to adopt these definitions, or at least to consider doing so, regardless of where they are working.

In the end, some sort of consistent set of definitions is important to creating a context that allows knowledge to progress over time.


Robbie said...

Hello from a branch campus in Australia,
It seems to me the state level definitions parallel operation here in many respects. Interestingly we don't have the description branch campus at present though, and, I confess to resisting the notion of main and home - it all depends on the perspective. I don't disagree with Charles observations regarding the focus in his blog on "colonial" metaphors though I do think the stage of the university relative to operating as a distributed entity is important.