Monday, December 31, 2007

The Joys of Branch Administration

Just as I believe that serving as a branch campus faculty member was a better fit and opportunity for me, than serving as a main campus faculty member might have been, I also believe there were aspects of branch campus administration that were satisfying in ways that my main campus colleagues are less likely to experience.

I first came into administration as an acting associate dean on the Mansfield Campus of Ohio State University. I had been on the faculty for more than ten years, and when asked to serve, I thought it would be a good opportunity to get some hands on "management" experience, to support my teaching and consulting. Circumstances at the time suggested that the appointment might last about two years, and I figured that was enough time to learn some things, then get back to my "real" career.

It could be that I'm just attracted to new roles, but I had the same experience with administration that I had when I discovered research, as an undergraduate, and teaching, as a graduate student. I found that I thoroughly enjoyed the challenges and, especially, the feeling that I was part of a group or team. To be sure, I came in as the second-ranking administrator, but I liked the fact that I had co-workers with whom I interacted frequently and closely, and in some ways, I found more immediate feedback on what we did than I typically experienced as a faculty member. For me, the character of administration--lots of balls in the air, and a faster pace--was more satisfying. Conflicts didn't cause me a lot of discomfort, and people seemed appreciative, when I could help them with their problems. Needless to say, I never went back to full-time teaching.

Much of what I described could be true of anyone moving from the faculty to administration. However, I doubt that most main campus administrators have quite the range or diversity of activities that I got into in my first appointment. On a branch campus, we tend to wear multiple hats, and what would be thought of as different departments on the main campus may be just one department on a branch. In fact, if you look back at my definition of an idealized branch campus, by its size, it probably does not have the departmentalization--for faculty or for staff--that the main campus has. (One reason I have a hard time incuding very large "branches" in my definition is that, somewhere around 3500 students, I'd guess, it becomes necessary to departmentalize functions, and I believe at that point one of the key service aspects of being a branch fades away.)

The result of how we operate is that we have a very good view of the boundaries between main campus departments, and we can see where processes break down. As a result, most of us become skilled at maneuvering through the system. For years, I've suggested that new ideas could be tested usefully on one or more of the branch campuses, before being rolled out to the whole institution, precisely because we'd be in a better position to assess and troubleshoot. Of course, it has been rare for anyone to take me up on that idea, which probably speaks to the status issue.

In some ways, a branch campus does have all of the functions that the main campus has. Usually, there is a physical plant to be developed and maintained. There are community relations, similar to those the main campus needs to manage. Programs related to student life are often at a very small scale on branches, but essentially all types of services that are provided to main campus students also are provided to branch campus students. My own positions brought a whole range of challenges and opportunities that I never could have anticipated from a traditional academic's perspective.

I've known heads of branch campuses who like to point out that leading a branch is like being president of a small college. In addition to the range of services provided, the work with faculty, and the budget and physical plant issues, the head of the campus may well be involved in fund raising and may work with a local advisory board or council that has some qualities of a board of trustees. The analogy is okay, as far as it goes, but it seems to me that it tends to exaggerate the autonomy and minimizes the enormous impact of being linked to the main campus.

To personalize things, I think the pleasure of working closely with students, as individuals, makes working on a branch campus potentially more fulfilling than working at the main campus. Serving on a branch campus, we more frequently see dramatic transformations take place in students, right before our eyes. More often than at a residential campus, those students will stay in the local community after graduation and develop into outstanding school teachers, business or professional leaders, and leaders of community-based organizations. In short, we get consistent, real life feedback on how our work affects large numbers of people.

The sheer power of bureaucracy and workloads, the complicated need to bring other departments along on whatever improvements your own department may want to make, the structural distance from the institutional leadership (as compared to access to the local decision makers for branch staff), and the distraction of the enormous range of issues faced on the main campus, all can detract from the sense of making a difference. Branch staff get frustrated with the perceived lack of responsiveness by main campus staff, but if they walked a few miles in those main campus shoes, my guess is that most would feel fortunate to work where they do. Branch folks should remember that, at least at the campuses where I worked, we effectively were outsourcing a lot of problems and frustrations.

That said, and despite whatever counter-stories main campus staff may have about how someone on a branch campus broke rules, created problems, or whatever, there is no doubt that most branch campus administrators will say they are not given the same respect in decision making that a similarly ranked person on the main campus would receive. That may be, in part, because the branch staff do tend to cut across departments and, like faculty members, often are not seen as part of the core team, working at the main campus. I think it stems mostly from the different perspectives held by branch and main campus staff, but I also think there is an aspect of main campus staff viewing the branch as a colony.

I have very much enjoyed getting back to a large campus, in my work of the last nine years. My own stereotypes of main campus staff have been challenged. I've found that most staff work hard and are reasonable to deal with, especially if one takes the time to discuss issues early on. They do make assumptions sometimes about students and staff at the branches, which can be hurtful in various ways, and they don't easily delegate significant decision making authority to the branch folks. The real issue, however, is much more one of impressions and understanding, than it is of any bad intention.

If you have an interest in thinking about these types of comparisons, I recommend that you take a look at a book, The Innovator's Dilemma, by Clayton M. Christenson. It affected my own ideas about how to develop a successful, but relatively small entrepreneurial unit, within a large university, more than anything else I've come across.

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