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The Gravitation Toward a Seamless Institution for the Modern Learner

Despite being historically siloed, Continuing Education and research departments need to collaborate to provide high-quality education that meets learners’ specific and individual needs.

Each college or university has longstanding processes and structures, but it’s critical to think ahead and adapt them to suit the modern learner. The traditional way of doing things will not work for every learner today, and departments need to begin working together to bridge the gap that has created obstacles for students. In this interview, Frederick T. Wehrle discusses the reason departments have been siloed, student interests and patterns, as well as planning ahead to become a more seamless institution.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why are Continuing Ed and research departments typically siloed?

Frederick T. Wehrle (FW): Every university certainly has its unique history and reasons for being siloed. The macroeconomic forces that have impacted many of us over the last decades have certainly something to do with it. In my observation, Continuing Education divisions and research departments were subjected to different pressures since the 1990s, which drove them apart. While research departments, particularly individual researchers, were under pressure to increase the quality and quantity of their publications and raise grant funding to improve their personal ranking and that of their university, Continuing Education divisions were often under pressure to produce cash flow to support their institution financially.

Consequently, Continuing Education divisions organized themselves to maximize enrollments and cash flow, which meant taking more control over their own operations, marketing as well as recruiting their own pool of instructors. This trend was accelerated by the strong increase in international students, who were able to afford high-revenue-generating programs, which in many cases led to the development of entire international offices housed within Continuing Education divisions. This evidently accelerated the drift between the two even more.

What is interesting to me is that this situation is may be typical nowadays, but it has not traditionally existed in higher education. If you look back, integration was at times very strong at many institutions, including Berkeley. So, it’s strange to me that, at many institutions, people in the Continuing Education division and research departments really believe they are siloed because they are just too different from each other, and they find rationales to explain why that’s the case. Luckily, at Berkeley and other University of California campuses, our common mission to provide access to the highest-quality education for lifelong learners is motivating more and more departments to create courses and certificate programs for non-matriculated students from our local communities as well as from abroad, which provides a great opportunity for us to break down the silos.

Evo: You mentioned earlier there that international students are specifically gravitating toward certain programs. Do any examples stand out to you?

FW: At Berkeley, we had several different types of programs for international students, and some of the first and largest ones were offered only by our Continuing Education division. They were initially targeted at professional learners, so it was all within our purview. But the opportunities to increase enrollments led us to progressively open them up more to partner universities and undergraduate students. Unfortunately, mixing undergraduate students, who have little professional experience, with more experienced professionals ended up disturbing the learning experience and ultimately led to fewer enrollments. So, it goes to show that you can actually harm the most successful program by focusing too much on enrollments. In the end, we restructured our programs and created separate programs for undergraduate students and professionals.

In addition, for several years now, our campus has taken steps toward integrating our Continuing Education division and research departments, and we consequently started collaborating with departments across our campus to offer programs for visiting undergraduate and graduate students. Currently, we offer the interdisciplinary Berkeley Global Access program in collaboration with several colleges, and we run more subject matter specific programs with several individual departments, colleges and schools including our business school, the physics department and our college of chemistry. These programs are excellent for visiting students looking for a true college or university experience.

Most recently, our division joined forces with our Summer Sessions, Study Abroad and Osher Lifelong Learning Institute to constitute a much larger Extended Education division. Together, we are implementing an integration strategy that will combine offerings for visiting students across campus, which allows us to collaborate more effectively with research departments but also ensures all visiting students have a similarly amazing experience. The integration also helps us tremendously when partnering with universities nationally and internationally, offering them one go-to office, whether they send students to one or many different programs, during the semester or in the summer.

Evo: So, why is it a strategic imperative for Berkeley to kind of address this gap between CE and research departments?

FW: Berkeley is a land-grant university, and we have a mission to create, curate and transmit advanced knowledge to serve society. We recognize that, to fulfill this mission, we must come together as a university and provide access to the highest-quality education beyond our undergraduate and graduate degree programs.

Creating our larger Extended Education division was a big step, and we now have the possibility to more effectively extend our reach into all age groups, from K-12 to post-career. And we have the opportunity, through our connections with departments across our campus, to enable motivated faculty to reach students and professionals beyond our matriculated students.

From an operational perspective, it is also critical for us to close the gap, since it is hugely inefficient to have different divisions and departments independently serving non-matriculated students, each one basically having to create its own administrative and marketing teams. If we do this ten times in ten different departments, each in its own way, it’s not going to be beneficial to the individual department or to the university as a whole. And most importantly, it’s going to negatively impact students and partners because we can certainly offer more consistent student experiences, better services and lower program fees with proper structure and efficiency on our end.

Evo: How are you and your team working to overcome the divide here?

FW: As a first step, Dean Rick Russo led the development of a new vision and strategy for a more integrated campus, which we call One Berkeley. The idea is that we want to be one cohesive university for ourselves, for our students, for our partners and for the communities we work with. This doesn’t take away from each college or school’s individuality and independence, nor does it diminish their respective brands. It simply proposes that we all move more effectively to improve our engagement with internal and external stakeholders and partners.

The reality is that there are fans and skeptics of this vision on both sides. And at Berkeley, like at many institutions, many think the silos exist for a reason. So, our very pragmatic and thoughtful approach is to start working with the fans and let the skeptics observe. When we are able to show how much more efficient we can be by integrating, how much access we can create and how beneficial it is for students, faculty, administrators, partners and departments, we anticipate more and more colleagues will come around and join the movement.

To be honest, even if we had a top-down mandate from the university leadership to integrate as quickly as possible, we probably couldn’t go any faster than we are right now. We need time to figure out all the processes and policies needed for an effective integration, and we need to staff and reorganize appropriately. In the end, our step-by-step rollout makes this endeavor realistic and sustainable.

Evo: From an operational point of view or perspective, what does it mean to intertwine more closely traditional and nontraditional sides of the institution?

FW: At Berkeley, we have a long tradition of Continuing Education. In fact, our division was founded only 23 years after the university opened in 1868. This is probably also why we had the flexibility to reimagine ourselves over the last few years, notably to stay ahead in the New Normal after the pandemic. Last year, we had a breakthrough when starting to dissociate two things that are part of our Continuing Education unit. Like many institutions, we have academic departments that specifically address the needs of adult learners or those of visiting or pre-collegiate students. They are subject matter experts and experts in the specific pedagogy or andragogy required by their students. These academic departments operate on a service platform, which is mainly our registrar’s office, which includes student affairs and academic operations, as well as marketing, recruitment, international student services, financial services, IT and facilities. While most Continuing Education divisions I have seen conceive both the academic departments and service platform as a single unit, we were able to dissociate them, first conceptually and then operationally.

In spring 2021, we mandated our registrar’s office to take the certificate and transcript issuance processes and reverse engineer all academic operations from there, in collaboration with the key stakeholders and teams. Through this process, we identified and fixed inefficiencies, were able to document and better communicate the processes and start centralizing certain operations. Once we had that, it became obvious how those same processes and structures can enable any department on our campus to operate on our service platform. And this is exactly what we are starting to do now: We’re growing our registrar’s office and developing our ability to collaborate with any other academic department on campus.

Evo: What are the biggest obstacles you face while building this out?

FW: So far, internally creating processes to enable integration is working quite well. When engaging with research departments, we do, however, regularly struggle with a limited understanding of what Continuing Education entails. For example, many colleagues have never had the chance to consider all the services necessary to run a course or program, especially if it is part of a certificate program. Faculty sometimes are under the impression that creating and delivering courses represents most of the work and therefore expect the bulk of the program’s revenue. When, in most cases, instructor compensation only amounts to 20–30% of all expenses. This compounds with the common but false assumption that Continuing Education somehow doesn’t have to abide by all the university, state and federal rules and policies because it primarily serves non-matriculated students. Consequently, I personally found that integration works best when we start collaborating with research departments at the very beginning of a project and help plan their budget and timeline appropriately. At this time, we have a few successful projects in flight where departments were able to adjust their requests for funding early on, making sure their program could be properly resourced.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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