Monday, October 18, 2010

Branch Campus Libraries

Over the years, libraries have been an important part of my life. I worked in the library, as an undergraduate, spent nearly countless hours doing research in libraries, and had library directors reporting directly to me for at least a dozen years. I’ve even published in the Journal of Academic Librarianship.

I’m also genuinely impressed by the way libraries and librarians have transformed over the years. I’m confident that libraries will continue to evolve and to serve a critical function at colleges and universities.

Against all that sits my belief that a disruptive environment has emerged in higher education. One prediction I’ve made is that newly emerging options will offer high quality online and hybrid programs at prices that are sharply lower than we see currently. However, even if that doesn’t happen, institutional leaders will be forced to take a hard look at programs and services, to make sure that spending is tied closely to recruitment and retention. All services and programs need to serve a strategic purpose, or they need to go.

I’m not suggesting that libraries are unnecessary, but that branch campus libraries need to be thought of strategically. The library budget and the library’s programs and services need to be evaluated based on how they contribute to the success of the institution. Simply asserting that you have a great library is relevant only to the extent that your targeted audience cares.

For example, some branch campuses have converted part of their library space into a “student commons,” providing commuter students with an excellent place to meet and study, while also providing access to materials, online data bases, and staff support for research projects. That makes intuitive sense to me, and if the campuses are obtaining data that demonstrates the commons receives heavy use, then it may be a strategic success.

In contrast, I have heard some faculty members argue that there are certain materials that must be in the library, regardless of whether or not anyone uses them. Those faculty members, Platonists all, believe that there is some library ideal that begins with a core collection of books and periodicals. If you are reading this blog, you probably don’t agree with that point of view, but for those who do, the future promises to be even more frustrating than the present.

Of course, it isn’t just about libraries. I also enjoy athletics and nice fitness centers, but I suspect it is going to take unambiguous data to support continued growth in spending at many institutions. Whereas an outstanding library—or an outstanding football team—may contribute to the value of an institution’s brand, they will not typically contribute to how branch campus students, never mind distance learning students, make their decision to enroll, unless those students see the value added.

Libraries and athletics stand out only because their costs are a bit easier to identify than some others. Indeed, I hear repeatedly, from different institutions with quite different missions, that no one seems to be able to get a handle on the marketing budget, the communications budget, or the IT budget. It’s tough to calculate the return on investment, when you don’t even know what you are spending! Moreover, there are opportunity costs that come with the investment of time and money without a clear strategic purpose.

So what will the branch campus library of the future look like? Clearly, it will depend on the type of branch, its size, and its mission. However, staffing, collections, and services should be those that have a demonstrable effect on student recruitment and retention. In addition, campuses of the future may want to consider carefully how they can gain access to collections, without the full expense of creating and maintaining them.

Electronic data bases have an obvious value, in that respect, but I can imagine the creation of collaboratives or of customizable electronic collections, and I know examples of online providers contracting with universities to provide collection access. Of course, current projects that are scanning entire university collections may have an impact, and the general trend toward open access may be significant.

Students still will need to learn how to use the technology, conduct effective searches, and evaluate the information they find, although the physical location of librarians may not have much to do with the location of a branch campus. I’d expect even more of the 24/7-type of service orientation, given the growth of online programs and the increasing emphasis on student service excellence.

Identifying essential elements of how libraries impact recruitment and retention, then providing appropriate services with an eye on cost, is simply an example of how successful branches approach every decision. Assessment is not just for academic programs!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Coaching for New Branch Campus Administrators

I’ve taken a couple of months off from posting on this blog, as part of the transition to my “encore” career. One of the things I did over the summer was to attend a week long coach training program. I’m interested in executive coaching, in several respects, including working with individuals in transition to new jobs or to their own new career.

All this led me to think about the challenges that many people face, when they accept a position as the chief administrator (CAO) of a branch campus. Some people, like me, have a regional or branch campus background, so they come into the CAO role with an understanding of the issues, politics, and so on. However, I’ve met many people whose first branch campus role is as a CAO. For example, he or she may have been a department chair or dean in a more traditional environment, although I’ve also known individuals who became CAO of a university branch, after years of service at a community college.

All of these transitions bring challenges, and nearly everyone I’ve met has spent some time bewildered by the implications of serving on a branch campus. If there are multiple branch campuses at the institution, then the new CAO may have one or more peer mentors available. Most will have a “first officer,” or key administrator who can be something of a confidant. However, many new CAOs are likely to feel that they have arrived in a foreign land and that they have no one with whom they can be both completely candid and also receive support, as they think through a wide range of issues and concerns.

I’m suggesting that being a branch campus CAO can be a lonely and isolating experience, in some ways. The rewards may far exceed any challenges, of course, but one of my favorite things is to meet first-time attendees at a NABCA or RBCA conference, and to see how relieved and happy they are. It is not at all uncommon for these people to become truly excited that they have found people who face the same challenges or frustrations that they face. The networking and “therapeutic” value of these conferences are important!

In this context, I think that many CAOs, including some who have plenty of experience, could benefit from having a coach. If you simply Google “executive coaching,” you can find lots of information on what coaching is. Fundamentally, however, a coach is someone who works as a “thought partner.” More than anything, coaches provide support and ask questions in ways that help an individual (or, in some cases, a group) think through their goals, options, and obstacles, then settle on actions that will lead toward the goals. (A nice introduction to coaching is provided by Jeff Auerbach, in Personal and Executive Coaching (2001), and I have adapted my description from him.)

Ideally, a branch CAO would begin working with a coach prior to assuming the new job, as part of developing a strategy for the first weeks and months. A lot of coaching is done over the telephone, and so one might schedule conversations every two weeks or so, until the CAO is feeling comfortable in the new role. After that, calls might come as needed, whenever the CAO wants to think through an issue or an idea, believing that a conversation with the coach could be helpful.

Finally, as I’ve been pursuing coach certification, several people have expressed an interest in coaching, as part of their own work. This makes sense, given that I talk to a lot of Baby Boomers in transition, and coaching could be an excellent avenue for staying engaged and contributing to the development of other people. If you find coach training of interest, you can find information on a variety of programs online. Some are affiliated with a university, many have a specific conceptual perspective, and some are face-to-face, whereas others are online or use a mix of delivery methods. I enjoyed the 50-hour program I attended, for a number of personal/professional reasons. It was offered by the College of Executive Coaching (Jeff Auerbach is the president), but I strongly recommend that anyone interested in coach training explore the options for him or herself.

I’m not sure where my interest in coaching will take me. I see it as an aspect of positive psychology, so it fits with my interest in Appreciative Inquiry and other related areas. I think it would be very satisfying to bring a coaching approach to work with Boomers in transition to the next part of their lives, and I see potential to use coaching as a tool in consulting, perhaps helping with the implementation phase that follows initial recommendations. Regardless, I recommend that new CAOs on branch campuses consider attending NABCA and RBCA conferences, as well as connecting to a “trusted advisor,” who can help with the transition, whether you do so informally, or through a professional coach. This work is challenging enough without thinking that you are all alone out there!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


Well, the time has come: I am in my third week of “retirement.” I view it as a transition to my encore career, as a consultant, writer and (I hope) speaker. Like so many Boomers, I feel neither burned out nor worn out, and I’m excited about future possibilities.

From reading and conversation, I suspect that I am relatively typical of someone in my position. I’m accustomed to working hard, then fitting in some exercise, and spending time with family and friends, as time permits. Now, I want something a little different. I intend to stay professionally active, but I also plan to take more time for the people I care about, to travel, and to explore various interests that I’ve tended to put on the back burner.

On the professional side, this blog chronicles some of my emerging interests. I would like to take a positive, coaching approach toward helping organizations and individual leaders develop strategies for serving adult learners, for encouraging growth of branch campuses, and for expanding access through distance learning programs. I am hoping to write some about design approaches to innovation in higher education, as an alternative to more traditional, slow, and unsatisfying strategic planning approaches. I think there are so many interesting and promising new ideas out there, and I definitely want to be engaged, not on the sideline reading about them.

For sure, life is an adventure, full of twists and turns. From my own point of view, my career has consisted of doors opening and me walking through, mostly out of curiosity. I see no reason to change that pattern, and I look forward to my new adventures.

In future posts, or perhaps in other writings, I want to explore the administrative implications of a design approach in higher education. In those areas of our work that are meant to be entrepreneurial and responsive to changing expectations, the old ways aren’t going to work. On the other hand, the emerging opportunities can allow for a level of creativity that we rarely see at traditional colleges and universities. It’s energizing, sometimes confusing, and full of risk and potential reward.

To wrap up this more or less transitional post, I’d like to mention an exceptional book I read, recently. The title is The Design of Business, by Roger Martin. Martin is dean of the Rotman School of Management, at the University of Toronto. He does a very nice job of capturing important elements of what I’d call a “design approach to innovation.” My interest, of course, is in applying these ideas to higher education, but I recommend the book to those who share my belief that change processes have a very different character, today, than they used to have.

Finally, I do have considerable interest in generational topics. Coaching Boomers as they make the transition to encore careers, developing programs to support that transition or helping organizations build effective cross-generational work teams intrigue me, and I see definite connections between branch campus programming and generation-related opportunities. It’s all part of the emerging new points of view on work, work-life balance, and positive strengths-based organizations.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Rate of Change and Predicting Which Institutions Will Thrive in the Future

I find myself using quotes from former General Electric chairman, Jack Welch, more often than one might expect, but he definitely has a way of cutting to the point. I see he now is involved with the Jack Welch Management Institute, which is part of Chancellor University and is offering an MBA. I find that especially curious. The increasing enrollment at for-profit institutions forces us to pay attention, but I find the idea of delivering an MBA that is tied to a person’s “star power,” uncomfortable.

Nevertheless, I came across a quote the other day that resonated for me: “I’ve always believed that when the rate of change inside an institution becomes slower than the rate of change outside, the end is in sight.” I thought about this in the context of disruptive change and my concern that many higher education leaders do not fully understand the implications of being in such an environment. The Jack Welch quote may capture an important aspect of why it is that established institutions tend to lose out, in the face of disruptive change.

One hears nearly trite statements, such as “the only constant is change,” which seem to miss just how profound disruptive change may be. We expect what one might call evolutionary or incremental change, brought about as we improve teaching technology, say, or serve more adult learners. But if the emerging business models create true disruption, in the way they combine the use of technology, focus services and marketing, and approach pricing, then the rate of change will be far beyond the ability of most traditional institutions to adapt.

I doubt that anyone will argue with an assertion that the rate of change inside most traditional universities is slower than that occurring in the for-profit sector, in community colleges, or in a small number of entrepreneurial universities. I hear university folks talking about how much faster they are moving than they used to move, but they still are far slower than truly entrepreneurial institutions.

If that is so, then I’d take it as further evidence that the “end” is in sight for many institutions. In some cases, it will literally be the end: They will cease to exist, at least in their current form. For others, it may be a matter of dramatic restructuring, almost unrecognizable changes in governance and decision making, or mergers with other institutions.

Surely, Welch is right. If you can’t run as fast as or faster than your competition, how can you not lose? I suppose you can argue that there still will be those who want what more traditional institutions offer, but as accepted quality and lower cost grab more and more of the enrollment, the number of traditional institutions will decline. I do wonder exactly how public funding of state institutions and the hurdle-erecting behavior of government and accrediting agencies might slow or distort the future I see coming, but the ultimate outcome would seem to be determined, regardless.

One of the observations from Clayton Christensen, regarding disruptive technology, is that some large institutions will try to cope by creating independent entities and empowering them to do what it takes to succeed in the new environment. The principle is that the “big dog” can continue doing what it has always done successfully, while being a player in the new environment and more or less hedging its bets.

Unfortunately, as the new entity pushes the boundaries, it makes the larger organization nervous, and there is a tendency to begin putting controls in place to “rein them in.” Someone wants to reduce costs in the new entity and requires them to follow the same procedures as everyone else. HR begins to insist on hiring processes that are inconsistent with a fast-moving entrepreneurial effort. Central administration approvals are required that slow things down with typical political compromise, and the important knowledge of the new unit’s leadership loses impact, in favor of more traditional thinking.

I’ve seen a lot of exactly that sort of thing happen in universities that set out to pursue online education. Even if they manage to get things launched, institutional leaders will find that the success of new programs is threatening, and instead of protecting their independence, committees are created and compromises are made. The practices of the larger institution tend to triumph over real entrepreneurship, and the leadership fails to reinvest adequately in the upstart organization. Not smart, maybe, but understandable in organizations led by human beings.

Will some institutions of higher education get all this and not only survive, but thrive? I’d bet yes, but right now it is hard to identify which ones. I still think flagships and the best privates will be okay, because I don’t think they are in the same market as the rest of us. I’d predict that so-called “research universities” that, in fact, have modest research capacity will be hurt most severely, because they are “pretenders,” not able to compete with major institutions, but pursuing objectives that are expensive, yet inconsistent with generating the level of enrollment and revenue required to be healthy.

I think some of the most successful institutions will be strong regional universities that have visionary leadership and a solid understanding of themselves as teaching institutions. For sure, institutions that support growth at their branch campuses, especially in combination with a commitment to online education, will have an advantage.

The more I see and read, the more convinced I am that the tipping point is upon us. I hope I have opportunities to work with entrepreneurial leaders, who are willing to empower creative approaches that energize faculty and staff, while expanding access and opportunity. I am excited by the possibilities. It may become more difficult for most to experience four years of residential education, beginning at the age of 18, or whatever, but the real democratization of higher education will be all the greater for it!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

NABCA Conference for 2010

The 13th annual conference of the National Association of Branch Campus Administrators (NABCA) was held in Tulsa, last week. We were hosted by Northeastern State University-Broken Arrow, and the folks there did a great job. As far as I could see, everything went smoothly, pretty much on time, and met the needs of participants.

I thought the program was especially good, this year. We had some folks moving to new positions during the year, and that could have had a negative effect on the event, but if it did, I sure didn't recognize any signs. Cece Rivers, our president, from the University of Central Florida, presided over the conference with the efficiency that I've recognized in her for years.

We were welcomed by Northeastern president, Don Betz, and from his remarks, I feel sure that the Broken Arrow campus will continue to thrive and to serve the region creatively and effectively. The Broken Arrow Campus story is a great one of university-community partnership and rapid growth in an underserved area.

We had two excellent keynote addresses, from Trevor Wilson and Gary Conti, that engaged the audience effectively. I enjoyed the fact that Trevor Wilson grounded his presentation in positive psychology. The impact of Phyllis Bebko, Florida Atlantic University, and her NABCA research committee also is becoming evident. Phyllis's work is a great example of the impact a "champion" can have, especially on a relatively small organization.

I believe we had about 66 attendees, which is smaller than a few years ago, before budgets had such a negative effect on travel, but enough to assure financial success and to allow for great networking. As always, the opportunity to meet people from around the country, who wrestle with similar challenges, is the highlight of the experience. I love watching first-time attendees, seeing their excitement and relief at having discovered so many kindred spirits. It could be that the therapeutic value of the NABCA and RBCA conferences is worth the price of admission, alone.

Next year, we are meeting in Seattle. That promises to be another great venue, and we hope to see more of our western states colleagues re-engage with the organization. After all, NABCA was founded as the WESTERN Association, and I've missed seeing more participation in recent years, as the conferences have been in eastern and midwestern locations. David Williams, University of Connecticut, is our new president. He has a number of years' experience with NABCA and as an executive committee member, so I'm sure he'll do a fine job.

Please make every effort to support this important organization, by attending the conference next year. I am confident that you'll enjoy the experience and learn much that is valuable from the presentations. These regional and branch campuses are a growing, critical part of higher education, and sharing ideas, finding colleagial support, and engaging in discussions about the future are helpful all around.

You can check out the NABCA web site, at You may also want to check out the RBCA site, That conference is coming up at its usual home on Longboat Key, June 20-23.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

New Directions

I have no idea how many people read this blog. From time to time someone will tell me that they read the posts and enjoy them, and when I go to the NABCA conference, there usually are some comments. So, at the risk of emulating a tree falling in the forest with no one around, I will share an announcement that is at least important to me: I will be leaving my current position in mid-June, and after completing some other “duties as assigned,” I will retire from Ohio University on December 31.

I’m excited about reaching this point. What may not be apparent from the blog is the fact that I have not been working with our regional or branch campuses for the last three years, anyway. I had planned to take an early retirement in 2007, but agreed to stay on to lead development of a more aggressive distance learning program at the university. That work has gone extremely well and been a source of enormous satisfaction to me. I more or less had an opportunity to build my own team, and they are the most energetic, creative people with whom I’ve ever worked. “Amazing,” as the kids might say.

Still, I’ve remained interested in branch campuses, as the unique delivery form I believe they represent. I am deeply grateful for the fact that I landed, as a faculty member, at Ohio State-Mansfield, way back in 1976. I barely knew that branch campuses existed, and like so many others, I thought I’d teach there a few years and move on. But for over 30 years, I served as a faculty member and administrator in roles connected to branch campuses at two universities.

Along the way, especially over the past 15 years or so, I’ve had many opportunities to visit branch campuses all over the United States and in two other countries (Russia and Canada). I’ve met a great many individuals who have committed a large portion of their careers to the mission of expanding opportunity for students who otherwise could never hope to achieve their educational dreams. That has made for a terrific career path.

When I add the experiences of the last few years to the mix, I feel as if I’ve significantly broadened my understanding of how higher education can effectively and successfully serve nontraditional audiences. I don’t know that anyone else has had the range of experiences with branch campuses that I’ve had, but to lead campuses effectively in the future, I believe it will be necessary to have a strong grasp of distance learning opportunities and of the adult learner audience.

What I’ve said many times seems to be coming true even more quickly than I expected: Demographics, technology and the preferences of adult learners have combined to create a disruptive environment in higher education. Branch campuses are in a terrific position to compete effectively in this emerging context, but to do so their home institutions will have to develop a deeper understanding of the access mission and how to take advantage of their circumstances to create even more opportunities.

I’m convinced that the most successful organizations (including the for-profits and any others) will emphasize exceptional student services. If we finally take the step of putting students first, we will be better able to understand how to create programs and business models that can soar. If we stay on defense and hope that something will save us, then…

Like so many Baby Boomers, I have no intention of retiring to a life of leisure. Certainly, I hope to have a bit more balance in my life for family, friends and travel, but I also intend to find some mix of consulting, writing, and speaking that will keep me engaged. Frankly, these times are too interesting to walk away. I don’t want just to read about what is coming; I want to participate in some way.

I’d love to help institutions, branch campuses or otherwise, develop strategies for success in this disruptive environment. I don’t mean this to be a commercial, but I’d enjoy working as a sort of organizational coach on strategy development, or otherwise engaging in conversations that could lead to greater success in what has become a very competitive environment. I’m especially interested in how university branches and small privates can carve out a special niche that will help them thrive in the future, and I’ve enjoyed the consulting opportunities I’ve had in the last several years.

I also plan to continue this blog, and I am working to create a web site that can host a new blog on broader topics of interest to me, as well as other pieces I may want to share. We’ll see what comes along. A lot of things interest me.

I want to thank the many, many individuals who have enriched my life in the past and who, no doubt, will continue to be important to me. I have made so many friends, in so many places, and I’ve learned to distinguish people who are honestly committed to the access mission from those who may have other motives. These branch campuses can and do change the world, and it is an honor to have worked in this part of higher education. I see a fork in the road, ahead. Can't wait to see what comes next!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Revenue Sharing and Support for Branch Campus Growth

I have yet to visit an institution with branch campuses where the leadership did not refer to being “one university.” Because there is so little broad public discussion about branches, it always sounds to me as if they believe there is something distinctive about being “one.”

Moreover, institutional leaders nearly always maintain what I believe is a sincere desire to see their branch campuses grow in enrollment. (I’ve seen exceptions, where the president seems embarrassed by the existence of branches, but that is rare. I believe most presidents, at least, value their branches. Provosts typically do, as well, with a larger number of exceptions, and I know there are many college deans who wish their branches would vanish.)

Despite leadership support for branches, institutional practices often block legitimate opportunities for growth. The blocks may tie to our internal political behavior, as well as to the practical reality that presidents and others find their time consumed by whatever is right in front of them. Branches, by their nature, are not the central activity of the institution, and they most certainly are not “right in front” of the main campus administration.

A major obstacle to branch campus growth, however, may lie in the way we handle revenue and expenses. It is something we’ve done decently well, in Ohio, over the years, and it took me awhile to realize that our approach is not necessarily typical.

In Ohio, each university branch has a separate line in the state budget. Until the recent economic problems, state support was reliably tied to credit hour production, whether the credit hours were earned at a community college, a university main campus, or a branch. (I realize that private institutions have a different model, but the essential principles described below can be applied at any institution.)

Although each university with branch campuses has its own practices with regard to revenue, the common model is to credit the state support and tuition generated to the branch campus. Then, the branch pays overhead for services received, back to the main campus. The implication is that money flows from the branch to the main campus. Increased revenue at the branch typically implies that the overhead paid also will increase, so there is at least this incentive at the main campus to encourage branch growth. The exact percentage of income paid as overhead varies, but 6-12% is a reasonable range, depending on exactly what services are delivered by the main campus.

At Ohio University, we send money to the main campus in three ways: through overhead, as described, through other transfers to support some specific services we agreed to over the years, and through what we call “splits.” We have several ways of paying splits, but the essential idea is to share “profits” with the academic units that house courses delivered at the branch campuses. Through splits, we are able to provide relatively modest revenue directly to academic units, giving them a bit of a slush fund that lies outside of their regular budget.

Our approach is a very direct way of demonstrating that the branch campuses are a revenue boon to the University and not a drain. Enrollment and revenue growth do not in any way take away main campus resources. Unfortunately, I realize that many of our colleagues around the country work under a much less effective model.

What I have come to understand is that many institutions have financial models that actually discourage, rather than encourage, growth in courses and programs at branch campuses. The problem often begins with how the state funds its institutions.

In some states, institutions are funded through what I’ll call “direct allocation.” That is, there is no specific relationship between enrollment and funding. Oh, the president can and will argue for more support, as enrollment grows, but that puts the cart before the horse: grow and maybe you’ll get more funding. Recently, as we’ve seen, legislatures have tended to cut funding, with the result that some institutions, in turn, have moved to reduce admissions. Not a great model for economic development in the state!

In at least some states, there may actually be a tie between enrollment and state allocations, but the allocation still is to the institution as a whole, and the total allocation available is capped. So, in an example with which I’m familiar, because the main campus is at or near its cap, further enrollment growth may not generate any additional state funds. There is no incentive to support branch enrollment, unless a change can be made to create a state allocation directly to the branch. That may be dangerous ground for the branch, however, if the main campus leadership believes such an allocation would be at its expense.

States seem to handle tuition revenue in a couple of different ways. Some states do not allow institutions to keep the revenue from tuition. Instead, it returns to state coffers. Most, it appears, do at least allow institutions to retain tuition revenue, and that, of course, is one reason tuition increases faster than inflation, given reductions in state support. If the institution retains tuition revenue, there is at least the possibility of developing business models that can support enrollment growth. In fact, because of their lower infrastructure costs, growth at branches or through online programs may be a viable alternative to growth at the main campus.

Where does all this leave branch campuses? If I were advising presidents and provosts, I’d emphasize a couple of key ideas. First, assuming the institution is not practicing responsibility centered budgeting, and main campus units receive what I call “expenditure budgets” (annual allocations that create spending targets), please do not apply this approach to branch campuses. Instead, fund them as you would an auxiliary, crediting income generated by their enrollment directly to them. Create an overhead charge that is realistic, so that money begins to flow from the branch to the main campus, instead of the other way around. As enrollment and revenue grow, the overhead paid should be yoked to that growth.

Second, if you are making what I consider to be the most elementary of mistakes, and placing some or all of the funding for branch instruction in the budgets of your academic units, stop it! The surest formula for discouraging branch growth is to deny branches the ability to develop a course schedule that meets the needs of their students, while expecting main campus chairs and deans to decide which courses are needed on both the main and branch campuses. If you reverse the flow of dollars, so that revenue flows to the main campus, then adding classes at the branches to support growth will occur more naturally. (I’m not saying the academic units shouldn’t have some level of oversight regarding branch coursework and hiring of instructors, but that the direction in which money flows will tend to drive decision making.) Developing some type of revenue sharing model, such as our splits approach, will further incentivize academic units to support increased branch enrollment.

If there is anything I’m sure of about branch campus success, it is that course schedules must be set at the branch, where there is an understanding of the local market and a deep appreciation of the outreach mission. Assuring that revenue flows from the branch campus to the main campus, rather than the other way around, is an important tool to help everyone understand the financial benefit of having branches, as well as to encourage meaningful growth in enrollment.

Friday, February 5, 2010

On Being an Entrepreneur in Higher Education

Not long ago, I was speaking with an administrator at my own university. During the conversation, this person referred to another administrator as being “very entrepreneurial,” and I was stunned. In my opinion, that administrator is far from being entrepreneurial and is missing out on outstanding opportunities to grow enrollment through new programs and strategies for delivery. To be sure, the area for which this person is responsible is growing, and there are some good things happening in the unit, but I don’t see what I’d call entrepreneurship.

Although I let the comment pass, later I started thinking about our different assessments of the same individual. I’m relatively certain that we have comparable knowledge about this person’s attitudes and behavior, and we can both see the same performance measures. So why would one of us see an entrepreneur and the other not?

I can't speak for the other person's point of view, but from my perspective, entrepreneurship is about innovation; it is not about linear improvements to an existing product. I would argue that an entrepreneur creates or takes advantage of a disruptive environment, taking calculated risks that change the competitive landscape. (See earlier posts on this blog.) One might say it is about having a future orientation, rather than a focus on the present, but that may not be entirely fair. Maybe it is more of an awareness of possibilities that are qualitatively different than what presently exists, at least within the institution.

An entrepreneurial effort in higher education implies new programs, new delivery systems, or new ways of engaging with students. Creative, strategic marketing is an important part of entrepreneurship, as well, such that prospective students begin to choose the new opportunity over previously existing options. There may also be meaningful innovations to the typical business model, perhaps affecting how the institution earns revenue or spends its money.

To illustrate, at our institution we’ve been delivering graduate cohort programs off the main campus, for decades. Our cohort programs typically are master’s degrees, offered in lockstep fashion, part time, over two years, at a branch campus or other location. Instruction is either face-to-face or through interactive television, primarily, with the same courses being offered by the same instructors as our main campus program. The programs are financially lucrative, if enrollment exceeds 20 students.

I’m pleased with these programs, and I imagine the approach was quite entrepreneurial in its time, but after 30 years, it seems like a stretch to call these cohorts entrepreneurial. Offering additional cohorts of the same or different programs may yield growth in enrollment, but they still are linear extensions of what we’ve always done. The fact that deans and chairs are eager to get on board with cohort programs these days reflects the economy and our budgets, not an entrepreneurial spirit.

On the other hand, these programs most definitely are part of a broader perspective on our commitment to entrepreneurship. Our marketing team has done some very creative and successful marketing of these programs over the past two or three years, so that the average enrollment in a cohort has gone up. They have built new relationships to help us spread the word, through what we call our Central Ohio strategy, giving Ohio University access to the Columbus metro population. (We sometimes talk about “breaking out” of our rural Southeastern Ohio region, although we remain committed to making sure that residents of our own region have access to graduate opportunities.)

The marketing efforts, in my opinion, do reflect an entrepreneurial spirit. I won’t go into details, but we’ve followed all the steps one would expect, in terms of testing and evaluating ideas, studying best practices around the country, making modest investments in new techniques to see how they go, and so on. Enrollment has grown by about 40% over the past two years.

That said, at the risk of being overly blunt, from my personal point of view, we are growing cohort programs because we can do so quickly, because many current faculty are familiar with and comfortable with that model, and because they can throw off cash to support the development of more innovative programming. I know this may sound cold, but the entrepreneurship lies in the overall strategy, not in simply growing cohort enrollment.

I believe much is at stake for higher education over the next five to ten years. It will not be an effective response to a disruptive environment to do more of what we’ve always done. It is not entrepreneurial to use interactive television to deliver the same program you’ve always delivered, with butts in seats and class minutes calculated to satisfy some bureaucratic reporting requirement. It may be a good idea to expand these programs, but there is no real innovation—no real creativity and no meaningful market positioning to respond to emerging competition.

In my opinion, there are certain keys to effective innovation in higher education. One key for the future, almost certainly, lies in developing a variety of engaged partnerships with other institutions. Successful leaders will be committed to listening to current and prospective students (nonconsumers), to employers, and to potential partners. They will take steps to co-design programs that speak to emerging needs.

We need to see delivery approaches and services that are targeted specifically to the needs of our students, not to the preferences of faculty members. We need to respect the challenges faced by students who are pursuing their educational dream, while juggling the demands of family and jobs. It is about value: An excellent program that meets students’ legitimate expectations for flexibility, support, and a price tag that they can afford.

Please do pursue creative recruiting practices and expand the programs available at branch campuses, as you can. Branch leaders know that we have to be opportunists and experts in interest-based bargaining. We have to stay patient and use language that builds support over time. But let’s not confuse that work with being innovative.

I am working on some thoughts tied to the topic of “how to think like an educational entrepreneur.” We have to do better than what I’m seeing at most institutions. One of the first steps is to recognize the difference between what we’ve always done and those creative approaches that change the game. Institutions may choose not to go this route, of course. I just believe that many of them will regret the decision.