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.

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.