Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Irony of Branch Campus LIfe

For the past nine years, my office has been on the main campus of our University. Before that, however, I spent more than 22 years as a faculty member and administrator on branch campuses of Ohio State University and Ohio University. I've been thinking about the fact that I had barely heard of anything called a branch campus, before I interviewed for what became my first position. I find some irony in the fact that much of my career has been tied to work in settings that are sometimes perceived to be suspect and of lower status than work at a "main" campus, yet my experience tells me that the impact of branch campuses on students and communities is often very special.

Keeping in mind that I've served at research universities, I'd be interested in hearing whether colleagues at other institutions share my perspective. I'll offer my personal take, on how my experience as a faculty member served me well, and then some observations about other people, who seemed to have a less positive experience.

For me, when I look back over my career, I recognize that, even as a student, I had relatively broad, eclectic interests. I became involved in laboratory research in cognitive psychology, as an undergraduate, and went to graduate school mostly so I could continue doing that sort of work. Then, a few years later, when I had my first real opportunity to teach, I fell in love with teaching, as well. Jobs were hard to find, when I came out of school, so I was grateful just to be employed, as an assistant professor at Ohio State Mansfield.

It was an excellent opportunity for me, given my interests at the time. At Ohio State, faculty members are appointed through the academic unit on the main campus, and the primary promotion and tenure vote is taken there. I perceived that as a fine thing, and I've taken pride in the fact that I was a member of such a distinguished department.

I knew that my teaching load would be higher than on the main campus and that I would teach more introductory courses, with more preparations. I expected--and I was right--that the research culture of the institution would help me maintain my work in that area. By the time I came into administration, nearly 11 years later, I had tenure and a very decent publication record.

Over time, however, my professional interests changed, dramatically. Mostly because of the type of courses I taught and the interests of students who took them, I shifted my attention from relatively esoteric laboratory research in short-term memory toward work in social and organizational behavior. Obviously, I have no way of knowing how I might have developed, had I been on the main campus, but given my inclinations and personality, I think it was great good fortune that I wound up in Mansfield.

Working on a branch campus allowed me to follow my own road. When I decided to change my research and teaching areas, it was a decision I could make, independently. (I did, however, stick with the original research area, until I felt confident about tenure.) Not only did I shift my teaching and research in new directions, but I also began to do some consulting and quite a few workshops and seminars for area businesses and professional organizations, which in turn led to involvement with various community groups. Somehow, I had stumbled on what I want to suggest is at least one route to enjoying service as a faculty member on a branch campus: relatively broad interests, genuine enjoyment of teaching, a sincere desire to stay alive as a scholar, and community involvement that was consistent with my academic interests. In short, my work and the perceived role of the campus came into alignment.

The idea of being a "big fish in a small pond" has always come to mind for me. I was, I believe, a successful branch campus faculty member. Yes, it was in a small pond, but it was satisfying in many ways. The colleagues I saw struggle in that environment generally fell into one of two categories. The first, and most obvious, were a few people for whom a branch campus was just a bad fit. In most cases they were individuals who felt that life had given them a bad shake, and instead of adjusting to the environment, they carried a negative attitude about the whole experience. Some were simply too focused on research to accept the reality of our teaching loads and service obligations. In some cases, they became poor teachers, appearing to take out their frustrations on students. Mostly, they just seemed to me to be missing out on the pleasures of branch campus teaching and the opportunity to enjoy conversations with colleagues from other disciplines.

The other group that struggled included good to excellent teachers, who simply couldn't, or didn't, produce the scholarship required to earn tenure. That was a much bigger issue at Ohio State than at Ohio University, in my opinion. In the Ohio State model, branch faculty generally are not held to the main campus standard for quantity of research, but there is still an expectation of significant work, published in major journals.

At Ohio University, tenure is on the branch campus. Teaching loads are moderately higher than at the Ohio State campuses, and the perspective on mission is driven by the branch campus perspective, more so than that of the main campus departments. The line I used was that we want our faculty to stay professionally alive and positively engaged in their disciplines. Thus, although we expect probationary faculty to produce and disseminate works of scholarship, we "count" presentations and publications in less highly ranked journals, research tied to pedagogy, or technical reports, as well as other activities that meet our expectations.

In my opinion, the Ohio University approach is better aligned with what I take to be the mission of branch campuses, but it brings its own problems, especially to the extent that branch campus faculty are not directly tied to their academic departments. In another bit of irony, it can be a bigger challenge at Ohio University to get main campus support to offer new programs, than it is at Ohio State, where the departments are typically more familiar with the abilities of their branch faculty.

For me, personally, I recognize that my life and career would have unfolded quite differently, if I had landed an appointment at a more traditional campus. I accept that my publication record was that of a journeyman scholar, not a major innovator, and that my status (not to mention my salary) was lower, as a result. But the closeness with students, the opportunity to follow my own, sometimes expanding interests, and even the physical distance from the main campus, were a blessing. An unexpected pleasure for me was the inherently interdisciplinary character of the branches where I worked, as well as the community involvement that would have been a much lower priority if I were at the main campus. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to work at both Ohio State and Ohio University, with their different mission perspectives and, therefore, different approaches to expectations of faculty.

We know that the key to good work performance, high job satisfaction, and low turnover, is having a strong match between the person and the job requirements. Whether through good luck, the hand of God, or my own tendencies to adjust to the pond I was in, I believe I was well placed on branch campuses. I also believe that branches serve an important function that offers a sense of reward and of making a meaningful difference that belies whatever may be lacking in our usual measures of status at universities. Therein lies the personal irony: I never directed a doctoral dissertation, and the "ponds" in which I swam were small in some ways. Yet, working at branch campuses was one of the best breaks I ever got.

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