Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A More or Less Local Story

In this post, I want to share my perspective on the development of branch campuses at Ohio University. It draws on a piece I wrote a few years ago for a book celebrating our bicentennial, and it illustrates how the context in which a university views its mission can impact creation and development of branches.

Our branches developed out of a long-standing commitment to serve a rural, under-educated region of Ohio. Founded in 1804, the University began outreach programs in a systematic way by creating an "extension division," in 1909. The division offered classes in scores of locations (more than 70) around rural Southeastern Ohio.

My favorite story of those days is that we actually hired three faculty members in 1914, who spent their week (Monday morning through Saturday morning) traveling by train and street car to deliver courses in a number of towns. In 1924, we added to the live courses by becoming the only public university in Ohio to offer correspondence courses. Correspondence (now called Independent Study), continues to thrive, in part because of incarcerated students, who do not have access to the Internet.

Building on this experience, we established an evening division in Portsmouth and Zanesville, Ohio, in 1939. The evening division program was intended to offer a broader range of courses, allowing students to complete two years of study. Given that there was a limited pool of funding for colleges and universities, presidents of other universities objected strongly to the perceived attempt by Ohio University to grab more of the money. After just a year, the Evening Division closed.

However, in 1946, we returned to the idea of an evening division, this time opening three centers, in Chillicothe, Portsmouth, and Zanesville. The rationale this time was to serve returning World War II veterans, by offering the first two years of education, through programs at high schools, reducing pressure on our main campus infrastructure. Our president persuaded the governor that this was a short-term solution and that the program would be phased out, when the backlog had been met. We at Ohio University date the founding of our branch campuses from this time.

By the early 1950's, enrollment fell to fewer than five hundred students. However, the communities being served made a strong pitch to keep their "branches," so with agreement from the governor, the program continued. In fact, additional branches were opened in Belmont County (near St. Clairsville), Lancaster, and Ironton. Eventually (an interesting story in itself), our Portsmouth branch became independent and developed into Shawnee State University. The other five continue to operate, as branch (regional) campuses, to this day.

By the middle-1960's, there was a clear demand for daytime programs in the branch campus communities. At about that time, Ohio Governor James Rhodes made a (famous in Ohio) speech, in which he asserted that there should be a state-supported institution of higher education within 30 miles of every Ohio citizen. In 1966, we opened our first dedicated buildings, and true campuses were launched.

(As an aside, there are now 23 university branch campuses in Ohio, affiliated with 8 universities. All were founded as two-year feeders to their main campuses, most in the mid-60's to early 70's. Most now offer at least some baccalaureate programs, and some offer limited graduate program opportunities. Combined enrollment at the Ohio University branches exceeds 7000 students.)

There is a bit more to our story. In 1985, our campuses helped fund the creation of a system of microwave towers, to allow delivery of live, fully interactive televised courses, usually from the main campus to the branches. Later we moved to other technologies, but I've always believed that our experience with correspondence and with interactive television gave us valuable knowledge about using technology to expand access in a cost effective way.

Through the years, branch campuses and our other extension/outreach/continuing education efforts sometimes were part of a single administrative unit and sometimes were not. Presently, we are not joined, except at the level of the Provost. My personal role, after supervising a combined unit for eight years or so, is with the development of distance learning programs, rather than with the branches, themselves. I mention this fact, because it may have implications for how I think about the whole outreach situation.

Writing a history of what we then called Regional Higher Education for the bicentennial book left me feeling proud of our long commitment to providing access to higher education. I felt that we had used the technology available to us to bring education to place bound individuals. Whether faculty members rode trains, served in residence on branch campuses, or used correspondence and the microwave system to reach students, it all was for the purpose of expanding access.

That leads to a question of whether branches of the type we have would be established today, with technology having evolved to new levels. Or, put more ominously, should we consider closing branches or at least reducing our investment in them? My answer is that we probably could not afford to create the type of branches we have, in the limited populations centers we serve, but the fact that we have them is an enormously valuable resource that needs to adapt to new conditions.

Not surprisingly (given that I am writing the posts) our branches fit nicely within the idealized branch category I described earier. We have 40 or so resident faculty at most campuses, offer a relatively full range of services, and have dedicated facilities. The whole operation earns and spends about $60 million per year. The branches pay an overhead to the main campus and also engage in some profit sharing with academic units.

Given the high cost of residential higher education, it is a great benefit to the communities we serve that many people can attend our commuter campuses and receive high quality instruction, benefit from a wide range of services, and enjoy a campus environment, without paying the higher tuition and living costs at a residential campus. We've seen considerable growth in full-time enrollment, and a decrease in the average age of students, suggesting that the campuses fill a need for both young and more mature students.

On the other hand, the campuses are relatively expensive to operate, with their facility costs, resident faculty, and relatively large staffs. That's why it would be difficult to establish such campuses today, as state funding declines and tuition caps are commonplace.

Somewhat coincidentally, we developed two facilities that I call outreach centers, in Pickerington and Proctorille, Ohio. Both are administered as "twigs" of branch campuses and give us access to larger population centers. Enrollment, especially at Pickerington, which is a Columbus suburb, has grown rapidly, with only modest investment in marketing. Faculty are very complimentary about the teaching environment and the staff support, and the cost of operation is quite modest. The facilities support a more limited mission than those of a full-service campus, there are no resident faculty, and staffing is limited to what is required to support faculty and students. From a financial point of view, it is a great concept.

As they move forward, I'm confident that the branch campuses will continue to develop and to meet an important mission for place bound students. However, the centers and our distance education programs will likely, in my opinion, be the source of the greatest growth and increased financial contribution to the University. To me, online or blended courses and programs reflect the next stage in our commitment to use the technology available to us to expand access, although in today's "flat world," the service region may be quite a lot larger than Southeastern Ohio.

All this leaves me wondering about the story at other universities or community colleges. What is the broad context for development of branches in various locations by different institutions? I'd be pleased to hear those stories through comments on the blog or email directly to me.

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.