Sunday, February 10, 2008

Leading Branch Campuses

Within day-to-day operations, some say that a branch campus chief administrative officer (CAO) is in a role that is similar to that of a small college president. At the sort of branch that I described as an "idealized" branch, the CAO is probably overseeing faculty matters, student services, a physical plant operation, a meaningfully large budget, community relations, and some version of alumni affairs. In the communities I know best, the CAO is respected as a community leader, spending much of his or her time with business people who may well carry the title of president, as well as interacting routinely with political leaders in the community and, perhaps, at the state level.

On the other hand, a branch CAO is not considered to be the equivalent of a president by people at the main campus. Trustees, executive officers (especially including the institutions president), and faculty leadership, not to mention college deans and (probably) academic department heads would more likely view a branch CAO quite differently, if they give the CAO role much thought at all.

This leaves the CAO in a tough spot. On a day-to-day basis, working at the branch can be very satisfying. However, as soon as it becomes necessary to interact with the main campus, stress and frustration may start climbing. Many CAOs describe with pain and anger their attempts to influence deans and chairs, to gather resources or to expand programs. At some branches, the CAO may even lack meaningful authority over the schedule of classes, over the assignment of faculty, or over some budget matters that are essential for the campus to thrive. Although this is less likely to be true at the idealized branch, which has an independent budget and a local faculty, there still are plenty of sources for aggravation.

Nevertheless, if the CAO fails to appreciate the political nature of university leadership, it is unlikely that the frustrations will lead to anything very impressive. An effective CAO will recognize the political reality and work within it to accomplish important goals.

One ineffective approach I've seen several times is to become argumentative with the main campus leadership. A faculty member once told me that she had especially admired a campus CAO, because he was willing to fight for whatever faculty felt they needed. I happened to know that the particular CAO had become quite ineffective in working with the main campus. He tended to fight over every issue that came along, with the result that his own supervisor, as well as others in the leadership of the institution, simply didn't listen to him any more. His faculty may have appreciated his demonstrated "support," but his ability to deliver declined severely.

Others I've known who work with a chip on their shoulder tend to use words like "ought" and "should," frequently. I'll hear them say that someone should "demand" that a department or college cooperate on whatever program expansion is being discussed. I do understand that all of us need to vent from time to time, but when there is a consistent pattern of behavior, I can promise you that the CAO will have very little success on the main campus.

Another approach I've witnessed strikes me as completely understandable. If the CAO is treated with great respect in the community and thought of as having a very high position in the educational world, yet feels less equally respected at the main campus, then there will be a tendency to invest more and more time in the local community. By the same token, a CAO may find more pleasure in dealing with local operations than traveling to the main campus and working on relationships there--possibly with little to show for it, at least initially.

However, in any political environment, there are various stakeholders, each with their own interests. It is important to tend to things at the branch and in the local community. It is no less important, however, to work on relationships at the main campus. By definition, the branch campus is in a dependent role vis a vis the main campus. Any CAO needs cooperation on academic programs, almost for sure, and probably around faculty affairs and various administrative processes that are not directly controlled at the branch. How does one get support in that type of environment? Degrees could be earned on that subject, but for sure it is important to be visible and known, to be recognized as a serious partner who shares core values of the institution and can be trusted with its very precious curricular resources or to stay in channels and "follow the academic and administrative rules."

In a political environment, one needs to know other stakeholders well enough to understand and appreciate their concerns (interests) and to be able to offer something that they will find valuable. That is, it is almost impossible to negotiate for something that will inevitably complicate the lives of the other stakeholders, unless you also can offer something that eases some part of their own burden. In my 20-plus years in administration, that something has almost always been money.

For example, many years ago, at a different institution than the one I now serve, we wanted to bring a part-time MSW program to our campus. It happened that budgets were very tight, but courses taught at branch campuses had unique "call" numbers, and the income from courses taught on the branch came to the branch. We paid an overhead for services delivered to the main campus, but kept the rest. The branch CAO offered the MSW program head $10,000 per year, from program profits. To the MSW program, this was $10,000 that was outside of the operating budget they received from the institution. It was my first lesson that a relatively small amount of money, at least to me, was extremely valuable to a department chair or dean, because it meant being able to say yes to some faculty request that otherwise would have to be turned down.

Some branch CAOs with whom I've talked, lack control over critical parts of their budgets. For example, sometimes the budget for faculty compensation is buried in college budgets at the main campus, and main campus deans decide what will be taught and when. To me, that's a serious problem, because without some budget clout the branch CAO probably has very little to bring to the table.

The branch CAO is unlikely to control curriculum--the institution's product--so if he or she cannot be creative with the budget, there is only persuasion and the good will of main campus colleagues to rely on. I'd be very careful about taking a job like that, if I had an alternative. I will return to the subject of leadership in the future.


Jonathan Talley said...

Dr. Bird,

I enjoyed reading your blog on "Leading Branch Campuses". I am currently the director of a small branch campus in Ava,Missouri. I work for Drury University, which is a small liberal arts college located in Springfield, Missouri. The branch campus I direct is located approximately 60 miles southeast of the "main" campus. We have over 400 students with roughly 35 adjunct faculty and 5 staff members. We hold our classes in the local high school and have been in existance for 12 years. The campus started in 1996 with 4 classes and about as many students. Current enrollment is around 400 students with 48 classes offered. I am currently finishing my M.Ed and decided to write my thesis on the effects of branch campuses in rural Missouri. That's how I came across your blog. Finding information on branch campuses is hard to come by. It's seems like we are the stepchildren of the educational system. From reading your blog, you certainly seem like a leading expert on branch campuses, which leads me to my question. Does your university gather statistics on the satisfaction of students at their respective branch campuses? If so, what types of questions are asked and what is done with the results? We evaluate instructors every semester, but the questions mainly deal with course information. I would like to survey how students feel about the branch campus as an entity. Do they like the facilties? Is the technology comparable to main campus? Is instruction comparable to main campus? Does the branch staff provide adequate service? If you have any guidance on this topic I would be most appreciative.


Dr. Charles Bird said...


Thanks for writing. In addition to student evaluations of instruction, which you mentioned, we have used the Noel-Levitz Student Satisfaction Inventory every few years. We liked it, because it has versions for adult students, as well as traditional students, distinguishes between satisfaction and importance, and allows a comparision of staff perceptions to student perceptions.

Thus, for example, we find that what students think is most important is not the same as what our staff thinks. Depending on what you want to do with the information (make budget-related decisions, strengthen retention programs, etc.) this is good to know! From your description, it appears to me that the Noel-Levitz (or a similar survey) would give you what you need.

I think our campuses, individually, do some other information gathering and try to conduct exit interviews, when students leave. I don't have direct information on those practices now, however. Maybe some others will comment with ideas of what they are using to assess satisfaction.