Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Out on a Limb: Drawing on the Experience of Leading a Branch Campus System

Perhaps the most interesting career transition for me came with my promotion to vice president at Ohio University.  In that position, I was responsible for five campuses, with a combined enrollment (at the time) of approximately 9000 students.  Each campus had a dean, as well as local faculty and support staff.  In addition, I was responsible for the Division of Lifelong Learning, which supported a variety of programs, including paper-based correspondence courses, summer programs, conferences and workshops, and other activities.  In fact, we had a center in Hong Kong that reported to the dean of Lifelong Learning, so in a sense, we even had a branch on the other side of the world.  Later, we also provided administrative support for online courses and programs, which drew my work in new directions.

Although having a vice president specifically focused on branch campuses and other outreach programs may not be unique, I do believe it is relatively uncommon.  Indeed, Ohio University moved away from having a vice president and now has an executive dean, who reports to the provost.

There were advantages to being a vice president, and in measurable terms, things worked well. We were entirely independent, financially speaking, and paid an overhead of about 8% of gross revenue to the main campus, in addition to other transfers that came to an additional 4% of our revenue.  In my consulting work, I learned that it is unusual for branches to be completely self-funded and self-supporting, but I appreciate the advantages that came our way because of our approach.  We assumed the risk for our campuses, but we also received most of the financial gain from enrollment growth, allowing us to add programs, hire faculty and staff members, improve marketing, and stay current with technology, among other things.

All of this is discussed in more detail in Out on a Limb:  A Branch Campus Life.  I’m sure that my view of branch campuses and how they either thrive or struggle was enhanced by the opportunity to work at the level of an executive officer of the institution.  The last several chapters of the book represent my attempt to capture something of the view from that executive level.

Although branch campus administrators should be committed to the development of their own campus, I believe they often could be more effective lobbyists and advocates in the political environment of a college or university if they better understood how things look at the main campus.  I hope my descriptions have some value on that score.  More importantly, I hope they encourage a more strategic perspective that supports a “mutual gains” approach to negotiation for resources, whether programmatic or financial.

If you work on a branch campus and choose to read Out on a Limb, perhaps you will recognize your experience in the first six or seven chapters, then find some helpful ideas in the remaining parts.  If you are a main campus person who works with branches, I hope the book brings some clarification and encourages deeper conversations with your branch campus colleagues.

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