Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Branch Campuses and the Planting of Seeds: A Local Story

Last time I wrote about planting seeds and suggested that the mission of branch campuses is to plant seeds in the lives of their students and then nurture their growth.  Keep in mind, however, that a “campus” is just a place; it is people who plant and nurture those seeds.  In that context, I want to acknowledge the importance of individuals who had the vision and determination to establish those branches and launch the opportunity for their contribution.  Anywhere you see a branch campus, you can be sure that the campus reflects someone’s vision for reaching out to serve place bound students.  The motivation for that vision may have been financial, political, or pushed by some other force.  Regardless, a seed was planted, an idea was nourished, and it made a difference.

I feel drawn to offer a “shout out” to a few individuals who launched and built Ohio University’s branch campuses.  None of these men has a branch building, let alone a campus named for him, but without their vision and commitment, the campuses never would have developed as they did. 

Ohio University’s campuses were founded in 1946, primarily to serve returning World War II veterans.  An economics professor, Al Gubitz, was appointed to oversee their operation, which was expected to last only a few years.  However, Gubitz recognized that the branches, offering only evening classes in area high schools, were meeting an important need.  With the president’s support, the University gained state approval to continue operating.

I never met Al Gubitz, but I’ve talked with people who knew him.  They describe him as smart and crusty, and I’ve heard that he operated the campuses out of the trunk of his car, carrying textbooks, sometimes money, and other things from site to site. 

Beginning in the mid-1960s, under the leadership of Ed Pinson, our “campuses” acquired land and put up buildings to support broader day and evening programs.  From that time enrollment began to grow significantly and the campuses thrived.  I do know Ed, who is a great guy, living in Athens.  Ed went on to become a university president and, later, a consultant.  But that substantial physical plant on five branch campuses owe their existence to his good work.

Still later, my predecessor, Jim Bryant, brought 24 years of steady, well-grounded leadership to our campuses, as they continued to grow.  Jim was an outstanding dealmaker and partnership builder with great understanding of higher education finance.  From him, I inherited a financially solid organization.

Of course, hundreds of administrators and faculty members contributed to Ohio’s branch campus success, and quite a few community members and politicians stepped up at critical times.  My point, here, is that we all need to keep in mind the importance of planting seeds and nurturing their growth. 

More often than not, planting seeds won’t get us in the history books.  Yet branch campuses exist because someone cared and chose to make a difference.  Someone planted the seeds and across generations others continue to plant, nurture and harvest the results.  Not a bad legacy.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Branch Campuses and the Planting of Seeds

A couple of years ago I wrote a post for my Creating the Future blog, titled “Coaching, Consulting, and the Planting of Seeds.”  If you are interested, you can find it at

I mention it because four years into my encore career I’ve found myself feeling more and more as if planting seeds has been the underlying significance of almost everything I’ve done.  I enjoy the variety of professional activities that fill up my days, from consulting, coaching and speaking, to writing my blog posts and (at long last) finishing my book on branch campuses.  Looking back, I also enjoyed teaching and administration, which surely are seed planting endeavors. 

I maintain that the mission of branch campuses is access and outreach, providing opportunities for students to pursue their dreams.  Although online programs may be changing things, branches often are the best option for place bound students who want to continue their education, suggesting to me that branches are places where seeds are planted and their growth nurtured.

I don’t mean to be melodramatic here, but typically we don’t know the long-term outcome of our work.  (We don’t experience the harvest, to continue the metaphor.)  In fact, we may be planting seeds without even knowing we are doing so, especially as we affect the development of our institutions, contribute to our communities, and teach our classes.

Awhile back, a former colleague sent me an email, telling me the story of a fellow he met who had started his college education at Ohio State Mansfield.  This student went on to professional and financial success, but he told my friend that it was my general psychology course that turned him around and got him moving in the right direction.  That was great to hear, of course, but the truth is that I don’t remember this student at all, and I have no idea how a general psychology course could have had that type of impact.

Most educators have these types of stories, and I wish we heard more often how our work has mattered.  It’s a little scary, though, because we also know that students sometimes hear a message we didn’t even intend to deliver!

I’ve often said that we know education transforms lives, but on branch campuses we see the impact in especially dramatic ways.  It is a fine thing to plant seeds and nurture their growth.  It makes a difference to students, to their families and to their communities, even if we sometimes feel unappreciated or frustrated by the hurdles put in front of us by people who just don’t get it.

By the way, on the subject of planting seeds, I continue to hear encouraging feedback on my book, Out on a Limb:  A Branch Campus Life.  In this context, what has been most gratifying has been hearing from campus leaders who bought copies for co-workers and are holding discussions around the chapter topics, as well as some who have persuaded their president or provost to read the book and consider the ideas around program development and finance.  Out on a Limb is available through Amazon in paperback ( or on Kindle (

Tell your friends!

Friday, July 11, 2014

Emerging Branch Campus Trends?

I’ve mentioned this before, but it interests me that the most read post on this blog is the very first one, which followed an opening introduction.  That post concerned branch campus characteristics, and it has been viewed more than twice as often as any other.  It can be seen at  Dating back to 2007, it continues to get regular hits, which I assume means that I chose a good title that shows up on Google searches.

Other frequently and persistently viewed posts mostly relate either to some aspect of branch characteristics, or to financial matters and revenue sharing.  With regard to branch characteristics, in presentations at NABCA and RBCA this year I discussed some emerging trends that I believe are worth watching.  (As usual, what I have to say represents personal observation, rather than any sort of systematic data collection.)

One trend is to open branches at greater distance from the main campus than we’ve typically seen in the past.  Small privates may cross neighboring state lines to place branches in areas they believe are underserved, whereas some larger institutions (also usually private nonprofit) may open branches that lie many states away.  Within a state, I see both public and private institutions opening branches that directly compete with other institutions in a way that ignores explicit or implicit service boundaries established years ago.  (I’m not even going to get into the issue of international branches, which I suspect has a dynamic all its own.)

Perhaps related, more institutions seem to be opening single-program branches or branches that tie only to one or two colleges at a university.  Similarly, some institutions are developing and delivering programs that specifically meet the needs of a major employer, whether a corporation or, in some cases, state government.  (Community and technical colleges have done this for a long time, but it has been less common at universities.) 

Not unlike programs that target the military, these trends make good sense to me, but I also think they stretch the “characteristics” of a typical branch, as I described them in 2007.  Frankly, whereas long-established branches may have been developed to expand access or to block competition, my guess is the newer trends are specifically intended to attract new student audiences and increase revenue.

It also appears to me that more institutions either are pursuing or considering separate accreditation for their branch campuses, or are recognizing their branches as part of a distinct college within the university.  Both separate accreditation and college status strike me as an attempt to give branches more autonomy around program development, allowing them to create distinctive programs to serve their own audience/market, without undue interference from main campus politics and process.

All of this is happening in a context where institutions consider multiple delivery options, create certificate and badge programs that are less than a full degree, or offer accelerated programs that shorten the time to a degree.  Taken together, all these trends suggest a need for targeted marketing/recruitment strategies, in order to make sure that the message gets to the intended audience.  Unfortunately, however, I’m seeing more conflict than ever between branch and main campus marketing and recruitment efforts.  I urge institutional leaders to make sure they have the right structure in place to support success at different campuses serving radically different audiences.

To be clear, I’m neither advocating nor opposing any of these trends.  However, if I were leading a more established branch campus, I believe I’d want to learn more about what other institutions are doing and how I might appropriately reflect those trends at my own campus.  Scanning the environment is more important than ever.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The 2014 Regional and Branch Campus Administrators Conference

The annual Regional and Branch Campus Administrators Conference (RBCA) just concluded today.  For a number of years the conference has been held in June, meeting at the Longboat Key Club resort, which is a stunning venue.  RBCA limits attendance to about 60 participants and typically has just one program track for everyone, which has worked well for this group.

As usual, organizers did a fine job.  Jim Smith, campus dean at Ohio University Lancaster was the conference chair, and the program committee clearly worked hard to create a strong set of sessions.  I have attended RBCA most years since 1995, and I always have a great time.  Indeed, I believe that the annual NABCA and RBCA conferences are highly complementary, and I encourage branch leaders to consider attending one or both, whenever possible.

This year, I provided the opening keynote, discussing my new book, as well as offering some thoughts on future opportunities and risks for branch campuses.  On Monday, I was extremely pleased and flattered when it became apparent that at least a few folks had read my book and found it useful.  Book sales continue to go decently well, I think, although I have no benchmark for comparison.  My deep hope is that Out on a Limb:  A Branch Campus Life will be helpful to those who work on branch campuses, especially if they are newly arrived.  Out on a Limb is my attempt to tell a branch campus story, but I also believe interested individuals could find quite a few potential research projects to test out whatever "claims" I've made.

I know that people working on branch campuses can feel under appreciated, and very often they have limited opportunities to network and share ideas.  RBCA and NABCA help speak to those issues, and I hope my book does, as well.  On branch campuses faculty and staff are all about providing access and opportunity to people who otherwise may have no reasonable expectation of realizing their educational dreams.  It is important work, done by remarkably dedicated professionals.  They deserve support and encouragement!

Monday, May 26, 2014

An Appreciation of Branch Campus Visits

Continuing to share from my personal experiences, I’ve been fortunate to visit a wide range of branch campuses both across the United States and internationally (Hong Kong, Russia, Mexico and Canada).  Some of the domestic visits tied to meetings of NABCA or RBCA, whereas others were consulting jobs, mostly over the last five years.

The consulting work shaped my understanding and opinions more than I expected.  In the absence of a substantial literature or research that identifies best practices, institutions developed branches for their own reasons at varying times in their history.  Every institution I visited had a unique story to tell.  There were common themes, of course, such as struggling to bring programs from the main campus, wrestling with interference from certain main campus offices that think they know more about the branch audience than the people who work there, and making sure that courses and class schedules actually meet student needs.

On the other hand, I’ve been impressed by the way branch leaders manage to get things done in the service of their access mission.  Financial arrangements, partnerships of various sorts, and persistent advocacy often produce remarkable results, even if the organizational structure or institutional politics throw up one barrier after another.  Good job, I say.

The challenges faced by small enrollment branches, with, say, 300-500 students, as well as the way an enrollment of several thousand students changes how a branch operates intrigue me.  At every stop I’ve met people who wear more hats than is fair, with job descriptions from the main campus that don’t begin to describe their days.  I’ve learned about unique strategies developed by campuses that deserve to be shared with other institutions.  I’ve also talked with students who are passionate advocates for their campus and community leaders who cannot understand why a program needed in their town can’t be delivered at their local branch.

My experiences are necessarily anecdotal, I suppose, and they may help explain why it is so difficult to do good research that is not simply descriptive.  I started this blog mostly as a way to share my thoughts and experiences, and my book, Out on a Limb:  A Branch Campus Life was an attempt to organize those thoughts and experiences in a way that might be useful to others who want and need to know that they are not alone.

The future of branch campuses can and should be bright.  I worry that institutional leaders won’t understand the distinctive characteristics of this unique delivery form of higher education that serves audiences in different ways than a traditional campus.  Branches have an important role to play, in combination with online programs and traditional residential campuses, with each meeting a different need, but contributing meaningfully to the institution’s bottom line.  If I can be of help, please let me know.

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.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Thriving "Out on a Limb"

I consider myself to be an advocate for branch campuses.  At their best, branches create access and opportunity for individuals and contribute to the economic development of the communities they serve.  In Out on a Limb:  A Branch Campus Life I go into much more detail about why branches matter, but for present purposes the key point is that branches serve an audience that is different than the audiences served by a traditional main campus or by a fully online program.  There are excellent opportunities for campuses and programs to partner in multiple ways, but it is a mistake to overlook the differences.

Institutional leaders certainly recognize that the world of higher education is much more complicated and more competitive than it was just a few years ago.  Count me among those who believe that the financial/business models are broken, and the impact of technology has forever changed delivery options in ways that are exciting but also increase risk.  In my opinion, despite recognizing the issues, most leaders remain stuck in frames and practices that are unlikely to be effective in this “new world,” but that’s a story for another day.

The last few chapters of Out on a Limb are more explicitly strategic about the conditions that allow branch campuses to thrive and the likely challenges they will face in the future.    There are outstanding opportunities, but institutions need a comprehensive strategy that includes distinctive approaches for their traditional audience, for online programs, and for their satellite operations.

For branch campuses, I believe the greatest threat to growth occurs when the main campus attempts to control too many decisions that are better made locally, in the mistaken belief that they understand the branch audience or that they need to guard against branch campuses somehow undermining the institutional brand.  Prospective branch students are not the same as main campus prospects, and their priorities are quite different.

Specifically, I believe that course scheduling, marketing/recruitment, and those support services that are directly visible to students should be administered locally, whereas those that are more of the “backroom” sort, such as financial aid needs assessment, registrar, and bursar functions can most efficiently be centralized at the main campus.  Any given institution may vary somewhat from the ideal, but enrollment success depends on connecting effectively with the audience.

Failure to appreciate the perspectives and priorities of different audiences is a serious mistake.  For both online and branch programs it is important to give them enough independence to avoid getting trapped by the demands of the “production engine” (see Govindarajan and Trimble, 2010, The Other Side of Innovation), which will try to rein in anything that is truly innovative, simply because the established academic and administrative units will view that innovation as a distraction, perhaps as a threat, and for sure as inferior to their own efforts on behalf of the institution.  It isn’t easy to support entrepreneurship in an established organization, but those who thrive in the future will figure out how to make it happen.

Out on a Limb:  A Branch Campus Life is available in print and Kindle versions on  I hope you will check it out.