If it isn’t apparent, my recent posts reflect growing concern and frustration with the way institutions administer their branch campuses. Having spent some years working with online programs, as well as studying the implications of disruptive environments on organizations, I also see important strategic connections between branches and online delivery.
Moreover, virtually every consulting role I’ve filled was at least in part tied to a president who wanted to see enrollment growth at their branches and in their online programs. Although I’m pleased and impressed that these presidents recognize the potential significance of branch growth, the press of day-to-day crises at the main campus makes it nearly impossible for presidents to personally lead specific initiatives.
I should add that, again in my own experience, provosts or academic vice presidents seem less consistently concerned than presidents about enrollment growth through new audiences. Deans have been mixed in their engagement, as well, but typically seem most focused on their main campus mission. (This is not meant as a sweeping generalization, but simply my own too-common observation. I’ve known and worked with some terrific deans and vice presidents.)
Although this is understandable, given their background and priorities, it means that presidents and branch campus leaders may be on one page, whereas the administrators between them are, at best, less committed to branch growth. That is just one reason for my belief that presidents and boards should create relatively autonomous units to attract and serve adult learners and others who prioritize cost and flexibility over a residential experience.
With that overview, in this post and the one to follow, I will raise five concerns I have about the way branch campuses are administered that will reduce the likelihood of enrollment and revenue growth. Similar points can be made about online programs, as well.
The first concern is that branches typically are buried in an institutional structure that is designed for predictability, not entrepreneurship. The branch structure should allow nimble, quick response to opportunities, assure that branches can offer the courses and programs for which they have local demand, and encourage deep, engaged partnerships with the community served. Moreover, both branches and online program executives should understand entrepreneurship and be aggressive in pursuit of enrollment growth.
The second concern arises if the budget covering faculty salaries and the delivery of courses on branch campuses resides in the main campus academic units. Truthfully, this seems so obviously wrong to me that I’m stunned by how often I see it happen. Deans and department chairs need to see clear financial benefit from supporting branch courses, or else they will see branch courses as a drain on their resources.
Put the academic budget on the branches, and then let units receive a share of the revenue generated, outside of their normal operating budget. If you choose to pursue responsibility-centered budgets, which I endorse, treat branch campuses and online programs as revenue centers, not as service units. The dollars still can eventually wind up in the academic units, but it is those units that are serving the branch audience, not the branches that are serving academic units.