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Demonstrating Value On- and Off-Campus: Building Partnerships Between CE and Academic Units

The EvoLLLution | Demonstrating Value On- and Off-Campus: Building Partnerships between CE and Academic Units
As the departmental units tasked with the distribution, rather than the creation, of knowledge, continuing education has a responsibility to work closely with its academic counterparts to facilitate collaboration and drive towards mutual goals.
Sitting at the crossroads between the university and the public, continuing education units provide academic departments with a valuable platform for bringing the knowledge they create to the wider world—but, more interested in the creation, rather than the dissemination, of knowledge, academic leaders often overlook the value that CE can bring to their work. In this interview, Jim Broomall discusses the importance of CE units, and provides insights into how they can best build productive relationships with their academic counterparts.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it so important for continuing education units to collaborate with other units across campus?

Jim Broomall (JB): Continuing education units, by definition, don’t involve the creation of knowledge. In continuing education, our job is to disseminate knowledge and identify delivery modes to transfer knowledge, but the actual creation of the knowledge exists in academic departments and professional practice. So, I’ve always felt that the relationship between CE and academic departments is symbiotic: They create the ideas and we distribute those ideas to different publics. Unless you have a good understanding of the unique roles of both the academic unit and the continuing education unit, you can’t really facilitate collaboration.

This is particularly important in units like Professional and Continuing Studies at the University of Delaware, which is not an academic college. We’re not a college or school of CE. Instead, we’re involved in the administration and delivery of knowledge.

Second, there’s a political impetus for CE units to build partnerships with academic units. Universities are competing centers of power, and it’s important to have alliances to help you achieve goals. There’s always a hierarchy of priorities at any university, and those of us at research universities understand that basic and applied research is the first order of business. Continuing education units have to be in a position where we can honor that priority and add value to that mission.

Evo: How do continuing education units benefit from these partnerships?

JB: If you look at the mission of continuing education, it’s rooted in the extension or the diffusion of knowledge. Universities are places where knowledge is created and preserved, but we’re preoccupied with the question of how that knowledge is disseminated. If our mission, as continuing education units, is to create access to educational opportunities and provide entry points to the resources of the university, then we need to have a positive relationship with our academic counterparts. We open the door, but the academic units are in charge of what’s behind that door.

Evo: How do academic units benefit from their relationships with continuing education?

JB: Continuing education units demonstrate the value of academic knowledge to diverse stakeholders. We provide the bridge that takes knowledge outside the traditional university audience. Academic units can use that bridge to understand the value of that knowledge and apply it accordingly. Building that kind of rapport is critical, particularly for public universities that have so many stakeholders to serve, including funding agencies and crediting agencies.

We also provide opportunities for academic units to conduct research. Continuing education units have so many relationships that academic departments can leverage. For example, we’ve had several cases over the years where we’ve done customized organizational learning for corporations and government organizations, and once that training’s complete, those organizations are often more receptive to having faculty come in and conduct research on things like organizational culture and supply chain management. So, again, I think that demonstrates the role non-traditional units can play in encouraging and supporting their work. We’re not the only unit that builds those inroads with the off-campus community, but we’re one of the major ones.

Evo: Finally, how do students benefit from these kinds of partnerships?

JB: The point of any research university is to apply and create knowledge, so students who take courses through our institution are either involved in the creation of knowledge or the daily practice of knowledge. Through CE, we can bring that knowledge to other audiences. For example, we have a certificate program in paralegal and the faculty are all practicing attorneys. The faculty can bring the day-to-day experiences they have in the courtroom to the students. Our classes provide a balance of theory and practice. That’s our competitive advantage.

Evo: How has the historic marginalization of CE divisions impacted the growth and development of these kinds of partnerships between CE and faculty partners?  

JB: It’s important to realize that, yes, CE does sit at the margin but that doesn’t mean we’re a marginal enterprise. The way I see it, we’re at the intersection of a Venn diagram, where one circle is the university and the other is the broader community. If you can approach CE from that perspective and see marginality as an advantage, it does benefit our stakeholders. Over the last twenty years, I’ve noticed that CE is often in flux. Sometimes we’re closer to the core and other times we’re further out on the margin. Some of the best work we’ve done in terms of meeting our students’ needs has been when we’re out on the margin and had to find innovative ways of responding to stakeholders.

That said, it can limit us. A classic example would be that we launch a corporate, non-credit training program in project management that’s very well received. The company might come back to us and say, “We also want a credit-based certificate in project management.” For us to deliver that, we’ve got to go back to the College of Business and see if it aligns with their priorities. Sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes it does. If we had our own College of Continuing Education where we could hire our own faculty and grant our own credit, we could respond more quickly to that company’s needs. That’s why you’ve seen the growth of schools or colleges of continuing education over the last twenty years. They give us that flexibility to meet learner demands.

Evo: How do CE leaders work with their colleagues across the campus to ensure that others understand the impact and importance of being able to adapt to and address market needs?

JB: A major way is by participating in the wider university context as a representative for the non-traditional learner. If you can identify forums within the university where you can participate as a university citizen–not exclusively as the director or dean of continuing education, but as the voice of the adult and non-traditional learner–you can gain legitimacy as part of the wider campus conversation.

Secondly, you have to keep telling your story. I’ve been in CE an awfully long time so I’ve built a lot of relationships over the years, but every year I still send a CE impact report to all of the academic deans, as well as the deputy and associate deans and department chairs, across campus to tell them what continuing education has been up to. It’s part of our ongoing effort of relationship building, particularly at a research university where the research is sine qua non. So, it’s a matter of education and persuasion. You can’t be an apologist for your role in CE.

That said, it can be frustrating. Every year I still have to have those conversations explaining what we do and why we do it. And of course, there’s so much more flux in the university system than ever before. I’ve never seen as much turnover and change amongst senior leadership in the industry as we’re seeing now.

Evo: One thing we keep hearing is that CE leaders often forge strong relationships with individuals from other divisions, but once that person retires, the partnership that came with it goes to dust. From the perspective of a CE leader, how can you ensure that you are developing sustainable partnerships with other divisions, not just working relationships with individuals?

JB: You have to demonstrate that there’s some inherent value for the department to sustain the relationship. For example, we have a program with our College of Health Sciences that has been running for 28 years. The partnership has survived three or four deans and half a dozen chairs, and it’s because it has been a financially lucrative partnership for both sides. We make an investment, they make an investment, and at the end we share the pot. So you have to demonstrate value that’s sustainable beyond the relationship with the individual.

The second thing is that it’s very personality specific. I’ve been fortunate to have built a strong internal relationship with our business school, which has outlasted more than one dean, and the reason we’ve been so successful is because we understand the business language. We can talk the culture.

Finally, we’ve always emphasized that we’re both part of the University of Delaware. We’re all on the same team.

The bottom line, for me, is the extent to which you can formalize the relationship and show how all of the organizations involved can benefit. That enables it to be more sustainable. While it’s true that each time a new dean starts you have to go back and explain what you do and why you do it, you’ve got to look at the whole picture. It’s not about the continuing ed unit. It’s not about the business school. It’s about the university, and under that university comes the business school and the continuing ed unit. You need that kind of institution-wide thinking and a focus on the broader picture.

Evo: Is there anything else you’d like to add about developing relationships between CE units and academic departments?

JB: The issue of marginality in continuing education is still so endemic, and while it’s important to build those inroads with other academic units you can’t lose sight of why, historically, CE sat on the margins: It was to serve those students who wouldn’t otherwise be served. We need to keep that priority top of mind, and maintain that historical legacy while looking to the future.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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