Published on 2015/01/22

Clashing Ideologies: Successful CE Units in Selective, Liberal Arts Institutions

The EvoLLLution | Clashing Ideologies: Successful CE Units in Selective, Liberal Arts Institutions
Finding common ground between the ideological differences of main campus liberal arts institutions and continuing education units is a critical first step to fruitful, win-win conflict resolution.

CE units can be described as successful from any number of different viewpoints, including mission advancement, a sound financial bottom line, achievement of academic learning outcomes, gainful employment, and adult learner transformation. Most higher education CE units lie embedded within a higher education institution (HEI) which might be public or private, two-year or four-year, and profit or not-for-profit (taxpaying or non-taxpaying). This diversity makes for a complicated matrix of relationships between the two—some supportive, some challenging and a lot in between. At higher relationship levels, we find things like ideology, which we might define as a body of doctrine, myth, belief and assumptions that guides an individual, social movement, institution, class, and/or large group. These ideologies can be self-reinforcing and supportive of each other. I have found the opposite to be true in most cases—the ideology of the successful CE unit most often clashes with that of the larger HEI—especially if that HEI is selective and liberal arts-oriented.

Ideologies regularly help us sift through the almost infinite number of facts we face each day, identify the important ones, and arrange and rearrange these into meaningful patterns of understanding. In this particular instance, it is paradoxical that ideological conflict should predominate since the HEI birthed the CE unit and one would expect ideological continuity.

Clashes of ideology drive intra-institutional conflicts across a broad front, and yet faculty and administrators rarely identify and try to come to terms with the ideological basis of these conflicts; they prefer to debate endlessly meaningless questions like how many credits should a course be worth or should classes be cancelled on Labor Day? Soon, ends and means are mixed up and clarity fogs over.

What do foundational clashes mean in practice? How do they express themselves in the culture of the HEI? How do they change that culture? The most obvious example of ideological clash concerns the faculty.

Although shrinking over past decades in the higher education industry as a whole, a very strong, full-time, and tenured faculty is likely to be the heart of any selective, liberal arts HEI. This faculty governs in a manner consistent with the best medieval principles of management. Rank and status are positive goods to be pursued and stockpiled. The central liturgy of the HEI—commencement—mirrors the medieval court with those closest to the monarch (tenured faculty) being the most prestigious. Meticulously crafting the curriculum, members of this faculty function as guardians of its quality. In their role of master craftsmen, ownership of their masterpieces devolves to them. Benefitting from what some roguish observers have termed the faculty mystique, they function as an elite class with their own handbooks, policies, procedures and judicial protocols. They operate in bold contradiction to the commonly held post-feudal, Western, liberal tenet of equality before the law or as chiseled into one facing of the US Supreme Court building Equal Justice Under Law. They present as a small privileged class owning the HEI’s means of production. They are scholar-teachers, advancing the boundaries of knowledge and they also teach in the classroom.

Successful CE units are likely to utilize faculty whose employee status is part-time and who work in the field in which they are teaching; they are practitioner-teachers and they raise little or no expectations for scholarship. The medieval assumptions of the traditional faculty ideology do not apply to them but a more modern set of assumptions do, such as:

  • Effectiveness in the classroom as a top priority
  • Ability to relate theory to practice in the classroom
  • Short-term contractual relationship with the unit and the HEI
  • Authentic curriculum development rooted in the real world
  • Transfer of course ownership from faculty developers to the CE unit and thereby the HEI
  • Equality of treatment with other employees

Successful CE units will also:

  • Offer professional developments to faculty
  • Manage faculty compensation wisely
  • Offer opportunities for collaboration between faculty members
  • Open governance functions to include this faculty

Clashes based on different ideologies erupt between the CE unit and the HEI over:

  • Quality
  • Compensation
  • Governance
  • Impact on prestige and status

Most HEIs lack the mechanisms to deal with these clashes as components of a comprehensible ideology; the formal structures for fruitful resolution are not to be found.

But many HEIs also lack the determination and will to deal with conflicts in this manner; this lack is perhaps more damaging to fruitful resolution than the lack of formal structure. Paradox again rears its head, for most would conclude that an ideological context for conflict resolution would straightjacket the participants leading to rigidity, inflexibility and lack of common ground. The opposite is true. Authentic conflict resolution and problem-solving are nourished by a true and accurate ideological context within which to operate. This context helps in identifying which issues are amenable to resolution and which are not; it helps set priorities to guide the problem-solvers and starts a process by which both sides of the issue can see the benefits of compromise. In short, an ideological context boosts clarity at all levels of discussion and, while not guaranteeing success, increases the odds for it.

Successful CE units face many challenges when embedded in any HEI, especially a selective, liberal arts HEI. A challenge over faculty is one of the most common and comprehensive. Viewing this challenge through the lens of differing ideologies increases the likelihood of fruitful results that benefit all. Paradox or not, it works. Try it!

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