The second most viewed post on this blog is titled, “Revenue Sharing and Support for Branch Campus Growth.” (http://branchcampus.blogspot.com/2010/02/revenue-sharing-and-support-for-branch.html). I tend to write shorter, more focused posts, these days, but so it goes. Among other things, I described the approach to funding in Ohio, which worked well for a very long time. Unfortunately, recent changes may make things harder for university branches; I am concerned about the long-term implications for enrollment.
In the same month, I also wrote a post titled, “On Being an Entrepreneur in Higher Education.” (http://branchcampus.blogspot.com/2010/02/on-being-entrepreneur-in-higher.html) That post stemmed from my frustration with institutional leaders who claim to be entrepreneurs, but do not appear to understand what it means to empower innovation, especially in a disruptive environment.
Good information is available on how to develop and empower strengths-based teams that can release energy and creativity in organizations. There are people who really “get it,” and they are more likely to be found on branch campuses and in those units that have experience in continuing education or lifelong learning than in the offices of those whose career focus has been within traditional academic units.
I do not question the good intentions of presidents, vice presidents, and deans, but in typical academic fashion, too many try to be “innovative” or “entrepreneurial,” without ever talking seriously with people who have been there and done that. It’s frustrating, in part because I believe there is a lot at stake for most institutions.
Entrepreneurial efforts are intended to develop products and services that will attract new audiences to the institution or that will significantly change its competitive position with existing audiences. Therefore, units charged with innovation require autonomy to allow flexible, quick engagement with audiences and partners, as well as the ability to make investments consistent with their rate of growth. When universities bury these efforts in their colleges or hinder their progress with policies and practices that are inconsistent with speed and responsiveness, innovation will proceed slowly, if at all.
I think most institutional leaders would be well served if they think of their institution as a kind of holding company, with a variety of businesses, each of which can and should be managed on its own terms. (I know some people don’t like business-related metaphors, but I’ve long since stopped worrying about that.) Each “product line” requires structure, policies and practices that enable success within its own market. Each requires leadership that understands the specific mission, the competitive environment, and the elements of a successful strategy.
That’s not to say that leaders shouldn’t insist on appropriate internal partnerships or that some activities and services shouldn’t be centralized, but the effort should emphasize the word “partnership,” and should serve the legitimate interests of each partner. (With respect to academic programs, I’m suggesting that faculty still should lead and oversee program development and quality, but decisions about offering programs at branch campuses or online should be market driven, and processes for program development and approval should be streamlined.)
Give branch campus leaders an opportunity, and many will understand how to engage with their audiences in a high quality, high touch way that can succeed. Keep them under the control of mid-level main campus administrators, and they will not be able to compete effectively with newer options. Force innovative initiatives to fit within your academic, financial, human resource, and political traditions, and you will be on a very dark road.