Monday, March 18, 2013

More Attention From Institutional Leaders May Not Benefit Branch Campuses

Through most of my career, I both enjoyed and benefited from the fact that people at the main campus paid little attention to their branches.  For all the frustration and difficulty of getting programs or courses approved, the circumstances worked to our advantage.  In addition, because we were financially separate from the main campus, we developed a deeper understanding of higher education finance than most of the chairs, deans and vice presidents with whom we worked. 

(Not bragging; just sharing the facts.  My experience with finance or budget administrators really was no different, because they tend to focus so strongly on cost control and risk avoidance that we found negotiations usually worked to our advantage.  Keep in mind that I am a devotee of mutual gains bargaining, so our success was mostly a matter of careful listening and addressing the interests of others, but with a strong understanding of our own interests.  Thus, it was the lack of others’ understanding of our interests that gave us an advantage.)

I’m saying this, because I am concerned that “flying under the radar,” or being “out of sight and out of mind” have become liabilities.  Branch campuses, along with online learning programs and main campus programs for adult learners, can best serve their institutions if they aggressively pursue an entrepreneurial tack.  Being entrepreneurial and highly service oriented tend to be natural for people who have served for a long time on branch campuses.  Bluntly, however, although I meet a lot of institutional leaders who talk about entrepreneurship, I meet very few who really get it.

Given the growing importance of outreach types of initiatives, we can expect institutional leaders to take more interest in branch campuses.  However, to the extent that they do not understand the mission, the student populations, and other elements that make branch campuses a unique form of delivery, branch leaders can expect some unfortunate choices to be made at the main campus.  Put another way, if main campus administrators do not understand the interests of branch students and communities (i.e., do not understand what they value or how they make decisions), those administrators will make assumptions that are off the mark, leaving the branch all that more vulnerable to competitors.

All of this makes me believe that the need for good research and literature on branch campuses will only increase.  It also suggests to me that the main campus individuals with oversight responsibility of branch campuses need to have a legitimate background in the area, or at least to have strong support people who can deliver good advice on important decisions.  Institutions need their branches and online programs to thrive, but thriving can only occur when there is deep understanding of those adult or non-traditional audiences we hope to attract and retain.

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