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Transforming the Main Campus By Leveraging Non-Traditional Divisions

The EvoLLLution | Transforming the Main Campus By Leveraging Non-Traditional Divisions
As colleges and universities shift to accommodate the changing expectations of learners and consumers, non-traditional divisions can offer campus administrators the opportunity to learn best practices for operating in a new reality.
Non-traditional divisions are frequently at the forefront of change in higher education, often serving as incubators for new teaching methods and administrative models. However, while these divisions tend to operate on the periphery of the institution, their innovations are sometimes incorporated into the central DNA of the wider college or university. In this interview, David Cillay discusses the integral role that continuing education divisions play in driving innovation and transformation, and argues that a closer integration between the main campus and non-traditional units can lead to broader benefits for all involved.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it so important for main campus divisions to become more innovative, student-centric and efficient?

David Cillay (DC): Higher education is in a different place than it was even a decade ago: There are varied levels of state support for colleges and universities and diverse resource streams to offset that new financial reality. We see increased competition for students and an increased level of accountability for the services we provide. Students are paying more for their education to counterbalance reductions in state funding, so there is a heightened expectation that our services will have an immediate and direct impact on their ability to get a job.

These changes are visible across other sectors as well. We can customize our experience when we shop and bank. Our experience with customer services is personal and immediate. As students walk onto our campus–physically and virtually–they come with those same expectations of customization, immediate results, and convenience. Consequently, universities need to focus on the development of new and expanded sources of revenue and a direct focus on student success across the institution.

Evo: What is the impact of thinking about the university in terms of the “traditional” main campus divisions and “non-traditional” peripheral divisions?

DC: Your question gets at the heart of the challenge faced by many institutions of higher learning. I am coming at this with a philosophical lens rather than a practical application of treatment, so please bear with me for a bit.

The term non-traditional usually refers to students over 25 years of age, and can also refer to online students or first-generation students. From my perspective, the term non-traditional implies an “us-and-them” context. Our students, and then those other students. This terminology might pit the main campus against other campuses in the system, or create tension in terms of how students access the university—campus students versus online students. It shouldn’t matter how a student accesses the university, be it through a physical campus, online or via professional education. All students are “our” students, and they should receive a quality experience no matter the discipline, credentials sought or point of access. That’s not to say that the type of support for all students should be homogeneous. Distinct populations of students benefit from varied academic and student service resources. The targeted application of those resources helps unique populations of students thrive in higher education. So, to answer your question, let me flip it: The impact of serving all students from an equity and quality perspective will improve satisfaction and success for all students.

Evo: What are a few best practices common among continuing education and other non-traditional divisions that could be immensely valuable to units across the rest of the institution?

DC: Higher education provides a wonderful set of experiences, diverse approaches to student success, and a variety of methods of assessment. Campuses are unique and varied—and that is a good thing. That said, here are a few practices, though not the sole purview of continuing education, that are foundational elements of our work:

  1. Continuing and professional education units are dependent on student success. We need to create environments that nurture success. We have to meet students where they are, physically, emotionally and mentally. I’m not saying we should water down our programming. Rather, we need to focus on the desired outcomes of each lesson, course, credential, and degree, and then create a curriculum that produces those outcomes for a diverse set of students. We need to move away from the “I will do unto you as was done unto me” approach to teaching and learning.
  2. Incentivize success for faculty, staff, departments and colleges. Rewards can vary, but make sure that those who deliver on outcomes are adequately rewarded and recognized for their work.
  3. Solid, actionable market research has to underpin any new program. Universities need evidence that supports program need, and supports the assumption that the institution is competitive enough to meet that need. Once to market, curriculum review–ensuring that the curriculum is addressing the identified need–is essential. If you find that the need has declined over time, honest conversations are required to determine if the program should continue. Higher education is adept at building new programs, but we’re often challenged when it comes to discontinuing an existing program that no longer serves a purpose.
  4. Although higher education is not exclusively centered on the job readiness of our graduates, having strong ties to those who hire our graduates is essential for program success. Those professional connections allow the university to understand the specific workforce needs of a particular area and, perhaps more importantly, allow industry leaders to understand how the university is poised to meet those needs. In other words, we must ensure that our product (our graduates) are meeting market demand: that they possess the knowledge, skills, ability and personal satisfaction to be successful in whatever arena they choose to compete. This is done through actionable, market research and strong ties to professional communities.
  5. Emphasize the customer service philosophy that is embodied in continuing and professional education units. As I mentioned earlier, students coming to higher education are more diverse (in terms of experience, ethnicity, age, etc.), and come to the university with a heightened expectation of service and experience. To thrive in future years, universities need to embrace customer service and continually seek to improve the student experience for all of “our” students. We need to be immediate, personal and comprehensive in how we engage with our clients.

Evo: What advice would you give on how to ensure that the experience and insights that continuing education leaders have gained working in non-traditional divisions can be integrated into management on the main campus?

DC: I think it’s important to mention that my main campus may not be like your main campus. In some ways, this question assumes that all universities are at the same place in their acceptance of non-traditional approaches to higher education. A continuing, professional or online leader fortunate enough to be placed at a university or college that has evolved to embrace a broad vision of the possibilities that academic innovation brings to higher education will benefit from that placement. Campus climate has a tremendous impact on the integration of innovations.

Continuing, professional and online education units are places of innovation. The expectation of these units is to push the boundaries of the “traditional” university and demonstrate success. Leaders in these units can improve that vision by highlighting the success of a particular innovation and demonstrating how it might be applied to other areas across the university.

I have colleagues who would argue that cash is king: if a continuing education unit generates a large amount of revenue, the CE unit is welcomed into the fold. I’m not arguing against enhanced revenue streams for the university–I think assisting the university financially is a very important part of our work in continuing, professional and online education–but it doesn’t necessarily bind you to the DNA of the university.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the capacity for non-traditional student divisions to transform the main campus?

DC: To see transformation, a university has to position itself to be open to the possibilities that non-traditional units offer. It is from that openness to new and innovative approaches to student access and success that universities transform. It is important for leaders of such units to continually enlighten their colleagues about the possibilities provided by academic innovation, and about how innovations might be applied more broadly across the university. Again, to truly transform a campus or institution, I believe a leader needs to be fortunate enough to work at a university or college that is ripe for such a move.

I work at a university with a senior leadership team who understands the shifting world we live in, the new expectations of students, and the need to be entrepreneurial, so we’ve been successful in building partnerships that support innovation. That success is often preceded by failure, and the need to undo legacy systems—no matter how sacred—to better serve students. Academic partners need to be willing to take a risk on a new program or idea, and serve students where they are. This makes moving the university to a different/better place much easier and more effective.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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