I am a true believer in the value of branch campuses. I cherish the fact that branches are about expanding access and opportunity—that at their best, branch faculty tend to be focused on teaching and that branches provide strong student support and meaningful community engagement. Some branches (in fairness, some colleges and universities) deliver better than others, but for me, higher education always is about the possibilities, as well as the current reality.
This summer, among other activities, I had opportunities to visit with branches at two institutions. The first was the relatively large Downtown Campus of St. Petersburg College. St. Petersburg College was a community college that added applied baccalaureate programs in recent years, and partly as a result, the Downtown Campus has grown rapidly. The enthusiasm of the faculty and staff members I met was apparent, as we were engaged in planning for their next stage up the mountain. With their long-time director, Yvonne Ulmer, preparing to retire, the positive attitudes will serve them well.
The other visit was to Central Washington University (CWU), which is a regional comprehensive university. CWU has eight relatively small centers that are co-located with community college across a large geographic area. These centers have grown more slowly, but steadily for a number of years, led by Margaret Badgley, who also happens to be president-elect of NABCA. Although Margaret has been at CWU for quite awhile, there are a number of relatively new people in leadership roles, most of whom recognize the strategic value that comes with branch campuses, in an era of emphasis on adult learners and online education.
As I’ve written before, this can be a golden era for branches, if they embrace their mission of outreach, offer the right programs, and assure strong student support services. Blending online and face-to-face learning in thoughtful ways is essential, especially if I am correct that disruptive innovation is a powerful force in higher education. As St. Petersburg College and CWU illustrate, there are multiple roads for branches to travel, but that is part of the creative opportunity.
Along these lines, I encourage you to read the new book by Clayton M. Christensen and Henry J. Eyring, The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out. Christensen has been an important writer on disruptive innovation, and I am pleased that he has now focused specifically on higher education. His books are a treasure trove of principles that institutions would be wise to consider seriously, but, again, each institution will need to develop its own strategy.