Monday, June 13, 2011

In Praise of Outreach Centers

Let us sing the praises of outreach centers! When I started this blog, I wrote about the difference between branch campuses and centers. Briefly, a campus (according to me, among others) offers complete or nearly complete programs and has a permanent facility. There is a local administration, providing a reasonably wide range of student services and support programs, although not the range one would see at the main campus. It has a resident faculty, but curriculum control and the establishment of minimum faculty credentials come primarily from the main campus.

Not all branch campuses meet all of these criteria, but the description is typical. Outreach centers have a more restricted range of programs and services, probably do not have a resident faculty, and have a relatively small support staff to handle local operations. A center does have some sort of facility, so it is more than what we might call a “site,” but it probably is quite limited in the total space available.

Centers, as described, may be established from the main campus, but there also is the interesting phenomenon of “twigs”: outreach centers created by branch campuses, as a strategy to extend their reach. Regardless, center directors tend to have their fair share of frustrations, similar to those of branch campus leaders, and fewer human, financial, and program resources with which to pursue their mission.

I’ve had great opportunities to be part of new things, but the creation of the Ohio University Pickerington Center was one of my most satisfying. The University also has a center in Proctorville, and although I was not involved in its creation, I did have a hand in supporting the construction of its present, exceptional facility. Both of these centers are “twigs,” and both have grown nicely.

Years ago, when I became involved with NABCA, I realized that a lot of the conference attendees were associated with what I would call outreach centers. That’s great, and NABCA is a strong resource for administrators who work at both campuses and centers. However, I feel a special affinity for those who carry the load at centers.

Frankly, centers probably make more sense in the emerging world of online and hybrid programs, because they offer the advantages of a dedicated facility and staff, without some of the costs of a full-blown campus. That isn’t to say that campuses lack value, but I do think most institutions contemplating opening new branches would be wise to think about the center-campus distinction, as they develop a plan and financial model. If we think of campuses vs. centers as a continuum, there is a lot of room for creativity.

The other thing I’d say is that I often find the sort of dedication, passion, and can-do spirit in center directors that is so vital to success. So, here’s to the outreach center! Center directors should seek out one another and invest time in building bridges of mutual support. You deserve some special attention.