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.


Robbie said...

Well Charles
Your analogy works quite nicely for me but then as a more recent colonial in the history of the world perhaps I have another perspective on being a colonial.
My idealism says that we need to think about the ways that we achieve equity of offering wherever we are operating.
In Australia, we have just held a first national meeting on Cross Campus Delivery as many of us reaching to our regions are using a range of technologies for delivery which, sure, we are all investing in for our main campus offerings as well, but which are critical for delivery if we are to operate in "the bush" or away from our (australian) very few centres of population.
The chances these days of branch campuses or centres developing independence seems to me to be relatively small.
So this focus on how to achieve the best for our students and for that matter for our regions in all the places we operate seems to me to be critical.
I am quite sure that those of us on the outer reaches (if we define main as the place that has the administration of our institution) do better if we can find ways to operate without a "chip" mentality. There are particular differences and some advantages to studying at a branch or centre and for those in the regions we are offering something that can engage with the regional development process effectively and I suspect, never more so than in the knowledge economy.
This linkage with regional development and then regional campus efforts to be part of what a friend (Laurie Stevenson) and I called "knowdes" in the knowledge economy allied with developing students' sense of entering professional and leadership roles has potential for those of us in branch campuses to feel like we have the best of one part of the academic world in clever distributed organisations??
What do you think?

Dr. Charles Bird said...

Robbie: Good to have a comment from Australia. I know that branches have a significant role in your country, but I don't have much in the way of specific information.

Given the absence of a significant literature on branches, it is difficult to know how to make generalizations. My notion of branch folks having a "chip on their shoulder" is a personal observation, not anything that I think is particularly desirable or useful.

Having spent so much of my career as a branch campus faculty member and administrator, I recognize that it was a great stroke of good luck for me to have gone that route. Whether for a student or faculty/staff member, branches often provide a much better environment than a main campus. I should write about the "blessing" of branch campus work!

I do feel that the main-branch distinction is useful, because it captures the reality of what happens. I hear the term "one university" quite often from various institutions, and I think we've tried to work that way at Ohio University. However, the difference in mission, authority, and influence on priorities shouldn't be forgotten in the name of feeling better about being at a branch. Regardless, I'd be pleased to know about institutions where the distinction has become meaningless.