Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Branch Campuses as Colonies of the Main Campus

I am definitely not a professional historian. However, I enjoy reading in certain areas of history, and I suspect that some insights into main campus-branch campus relations could be gained by considering the relationship between an established nation and colonies it attempts to control at a distance. My own reading has included some coverage of the relationship between England, in the 18th century, and the American colonies, so my basic question is whether that situation has similarities to the relationship between a university and its branch campuses. Maybe someone more knowledgeable in this area can consider whether or not the analogy has value.

For example, branches don't just magically appear. Rather, they are created to meet some main campus need. The need might be to accommodate more students than the main campus can handle, to generate additional revenue from some more lucrative market, or to respond to some pressure from state-level policy makers. A branch campus might even be started simply to block another institution from expansion. The key point is that a branch will only be established, if there is some belief in its value on the main campus, at least at the leadership level.

(Indeed, I found a quote, which I can no longer locate, from Novice Fawcett, President of Ohio State University, when it first opened its branch campuses. President Fawcett said that he started the branches, in part, to block Ohio University from taking over the entire state!)

The result may be that main campus faculty and staff believe they hold a proprietary interest in the branch campuses, especially from an academic and financial point of view. Most likely, main campus people will feel that the branch exists only for whatever limited purpose was initially intended. Thus, the main campus faculty has a right to oversee who teaches what on the branches, to limit programing, to direct student services, and to charge branches for services, for use of "its" courses, and so on.

I'm quite sure that a lot of branch campus personnel feel like unappreciated colonists. Hal Dengerink, Chancellor of Washington State University Vancouver, says that branch campus faculty and staff need to understand that they aren't the "main thing," from the point of view of institutional leaders, and that fact has a significant impact on effective institutional political strategy. Too much boat rocking may well produce unpleasant results for the branches, given that the branches were originally created to help solve a main campus problem, not to create new ones.

I'd also expect the perspective of branch campus "colonists" to change over time. Early employees on a new branch campus often describe a sense of being pioneers, off in the academic wilderness, depending on one another for support, and engaged in holy work to create new access to higher education. Assuming enrollment grows and staffing increases, expansion of programs will seem logical to students, faculty and staff, and community leaders. It will not seem so logical to people at the main campus, who will tend to maintain perceptions (stereotypes) about the branches, as originally created.

Still another issue may relate to predictable conflicts over scarce resources. If money is tight, one can predict that the main campus faculty and staff will be concerned about any real or perceived drain of "their" resources. If main campus people perceive competition for students or dollars, they will almost certainly move to restrain branch campus growth. (I have lots of war stories on that score!)

A colleague at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee Campus, Peter French, has correctly observed that, if there is turmoil on the main campus, it will affect the branches, even if there is no mean spirited intent. Political battles can lead combatants either to court branch campus support, to attempt to deny the branch campuses participation in important decisions, or to use the branches as examples of the institution's "problems."

What happens if a branch campus grows to the point that it wants independence? I have no personal experience with a campus going its own way, so I don't know what struggles occurred, if any. There are examples around the country of one-time branches that became free standing institutions (e.g., Coastal Carolina University was once a branch of the University of South Carolina), as well as examples of relatively typical branches that gained a measure of self-determination (perhaps housing a school or college of the university, or pursuing separate accreditation and reporting lines to the president or trustees).

It isn't surprising that expectations held on branch campuses change over time. Especially if a branch was established a generation or more ago, that campus is by now the center of the academic world for its faculty, staff and students. Local program needs or the opportunity for personal professional growth are important. Limitations that seem unnecessary or even disrespectful will produce resentment in branch campus faculty and staff. Over time, the local perception of mission is likely to grow somewhat distant from the original main campus intention, and the branch campus folks may bristle at the "uninformed" or biased perceptions at the main campus. I've actually heard, on more than one occasion, a main campus faculty member or administrator refer to the branch campuses as "running amuck," when I didn't see anything happening except an effort to expand opportunities for place bound students.

Then, again, it is true, in my experience, that branch campus faculty and staff underestimate their dependence on the support of the main campus, including the value of its "brand." In their frustration, they will sometimes push the boundaries, break the rules, or (much like an adolescent challenging parental authority) try to sneak a course, or even an entire academic program, past the main campus authorities. That may look like running amuck to someone on the main campus and reinforce their biases. It might look more like the Boston Tea Party on the branch! (By the way, I do understand that there are very serious issues that occur with colonization that are quite different than the relatively narrow aspects I am wondering about.)

What can be done to allow for the natural maturation of branch campuses, without somehow losing the essence of what the main campus feels the institution is about? I suppose that is what many of us try to determine every day. I wonder if there are lessons from colonialism that could inform our thinking or, to be more scholarly, could lead to predictions about main campus-branch campus dynamics and evolution? At least in Ohio, most branches would not survive without ties to the trunk of the main campus, and they could not come close to providing the level of services they need for the money they have available. Are there models of colonies that have worked relatively well over time, or that relieved tensions and supported positive relationships? I invite your thoughts on this or other analogies and metaphors about branch campus life.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Why branches matter

In previous posts, I described what I take to be the typical (idealized) branch campus and suggested how future research might explore the implications of variation from what is typical. The case for branch campuses, however, is made on both rational and emotional grounds. These campuses matter, and far too many people, both on main campuses and branch campuses, fail to understand adequately why many branches thrive and how they make a difference. As a result, insittutions may not fully exploit the strategic potential of branches.

Some of the reasons branches matter are obvious. They offer access to higher education, usually with flexible scheduling and relatively small classes. Most branch campus instructors are highly committed to teaching, ahead of whatever scholarly interests they may maintain. Staff tend to wear multiple hats and to work in close physical proximity to each other, with the result that administrative departments do not have the sense of separateness that one finds in more highly departmentalized situations--students are less likely to be passed from one office to another.

Learning support may not always be what we'd like it to be on the branches, but compared to many main campuses, at least at large research universities, students perceive a high level of caring. Faculty members tend to be available to students and willing to discuss academic concerns. In part because of the inherently interdisciplinary character of branch campuses, faculty members may be more likely to discuss concerns about students with each other and to recognize problems in time to support a student's success. (As always, my perspective is tied to my experience with branches of research universities. The distinctions may be less apparent at community colleges or at teaching-focused universities.)

The cost of attending a branch campus may be considerably less than attending a residential campus. In Ohio, tuition on university branch campuses is typically lower than on the main campus, but this isn't true in many states or at all types of branches. However, even for traditionally aged students, families tend not to consider the cost of providing room and board at home in the overall cost of attending college. Students may accumulate less in loans and can actually work their way through school, a near impossibility at a residential main campus.

All of this represents generalizations that are commonly true, but not universal. If you believe as strongly as I do in the potential of branch campuses to change lives, then you'll also be disappointed, when you encounter a cynical or unengaged faculty or staff member, or an administrator who doesn't seem to embrace the mission. Moreover, I've found the main campus commitment to undergraduate education at Ohio University to be sincere and strong. I can argue that branch campus students do not receive a lesser educational experience than main campus students, but not that they receive a superior experience.

The real branch campus drama, in my opinion, lies in the personal stories told by their students. Sure, some students attend a branch because they lack the motivation to do anything else. However, I've seen audiences reduced to tears by students telling stories about how his/her life was turned around because of access to the education provided by the local branch campus. These powerful stories can serve an institution's leadership well, if they are used to illustrate how the institution is engaged with employers and communities, not to mention achieving the goals of trustees and state-level policy makers.

Yet, there are other reasons that branch campuses are valuable to institutions. For example, branches may lie in different legislative or congressional districts than the main campus, bringing political advantages that would not otherwise be so apparent. At Ohio University, we found that our branch campuses have access to donors who are not necessarily alumni and would never donate to the main campus, so there are opportunities for gifts that are unlikely to be obtained by the main campus. Broadly speaking, the community engagement and local access provided by branches build support for the institution that can be helpful and demonstrate the value of the broader institution.

Finally, for those who are familiar with the book Good to Great by Jim Collins, an important distinction is made between foxes and hedgehogs. Foxes look great and run around doing lots of different things. Hedgehogs, which may be less attractive, do only one thing, but do it exceptionally well. Branches tend to be hedgehogs, at least as compared to main campuses. That is, they may lack the status of the main campus, but, at their best, they are very focused on a mission of access and service. The result is that many branches get after their local markets with clarity of purpose. Main campus leaders could benefit from considering how and why their branches succeed or fail.

Keeping human and financial resources focused often produces stronger financial results, as well, which may serve broader purposes of the institution. In fact, I'd argue that part of determining whether a branch campus is needed or not should be demonstrating that it can fully cover its costs and help support institutional priorities. In my opinion, it is fundamental that demonstrating need implies demonstrating enrollment and net revenue that make the good investment obvious.

Branch campuses, then, serve a variety of purposes for institutions, including the noble commitments we all celebrate. The purposes served may not be a high priority to everyone on the faculty or in the administration, but the leadership definitely ought to get it. Well placed and supported branch campuses can become one of the most valuable assets of a higher education institution.