Published on 2014/09/15

Life on the Edge: A Blessing or a Curse for the Continuing Education Unit?

Life on the Edge: A Blessing or a Curse for the Continuing Education Unit?
While many continuing education leaders trumpet the value of operating on the periphery of their institution, there are some cliff-edges that require caution.
I periodically hear continuing education (CE) administrators and programmers lamenting the fact that they are on the fringes of the university rather than being a part of the institutional “core”.  In some institutions, this may be the reality. However, there are a number of arguments — pro and con — surrounding the positioning of a continuing education unit at the margins of traditional university activities and structures.

The Positives

Firstly, let’s look at the positives. Innovation happens at the edge. When you are not burdened with a “that’s the way we do things around here” mentality, there is the freedom to be creative and innovative. Ultimately, this freedom allows continuing educators to develop programming that is unique to the institution but relevant to the potential audience. Different programming structures, modalities and services are easier to conceive and implement when there are fewer ties that bind.

Existing outside the university core also allows a CE unit to be closer to its audiences – literally and figuratively. Whether you are working with corporate clients, community partners or non-traditional students you are able to develop better understandings and stronger relationships when you are not interacting through the lens of the traditional academic institution.

Finally, there is something to be said for flying under the radar. It can provide some measure of freedom to innovate, to experiment and to “fail quietly,” as it were. This is a luxury that is often not available to units that find themselves at the core, particularly in these days of increased accountability.

The Negatives

Unfortunately, it is not all rainbows and puppies! A CE unit that is more removed from the institutional core runs the risk of being considered dispensable. When the unit is not within the core academic mission, its strengths and capabilities are typically not as well known and can be relegated to a single metric (usually revenue generation). When the metrics fail to deliver in the manner expected, it can significantly impact the unit’s operations as they are not seen to be contributing to the core mission of the institution.

Living “life on the edge” can also lead to lost opportunities for a CE unit. The case for collaboration with other institutional departments becomes more difficult to make as the distance from the core academic mission increases. It can make the CE unit seem somehow less legitimate. This is not an insurmountable obstacle as there are certainly ways to educate potential partners. The task, however, simply becomes more challenging when you are organizationally distant, focusing on different outcomes or metrics, and your lenses are different.


CE units have found success in both places; firmly embedded in the institutional academic plan and innovating and profiting at the outskirts. Solid arguments can be made for either scenario, depending on the institution, its mission, the students/clients and the strengths of the CE unit.

If a unit does find itself at the edge or has consciously chosen to function there, then the leaders of the unit must be aware of the consequences that are associated with that decision. Functioning away from the core provides freedom, but it can also lead to charges of irrelevance.

Be careful what you wish for!

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Readers Comments

Linda Bars 2014/09/15 at 3:07 pm

This is an interesting way to frame this discussion. I like the idea of being out on the edge, but it is scarier. The opportunity for innovation is greater and the capacity to fail is indeed larger. That said, if you’re working on some big experimental project that takes time to show results, you may lose your job or have your department cut before your program has the chance to really take off.

Cathy E. 2014/09/15 at 4:37 pm

I think we need to find a balance between core and periphery. This is a discussion that has dominated CE circles for years now. We should accept that we are part of the institution and be active in supporting its growth and transformation. At the same time, there’s no reason we need to lose our entrepreneurial spirit. It just means we have to work harder to get approval to do some of the more innovative projects. A little more oversight only kills the underprepared.

Gen Zhao 2014/09/16 at 10:17 am

Interesting look at the ideal placement for an institution’s CE unit. I don’t think there’s any one that jumps out as being more advantageous than the other. Rather, I think it comes down to each individual institution to make the decision based on its operating mission, key student demographic and available infrastructure and resources.

Jessica Monohan 2014/09/16 at 11:27 am

Why can’t CE units have the “best of both”? What I mean is, institutions could have CE units that operate independently but that have formalized partnerships with certain departments to deliver programming or share administrative services. These partnerships would be set up in the same way as an institution’s other partnerships with third-party providers. That way, the CE unit and main institution could determine where it’s advantageous for the former to be brought into the core, and where it might be better to leave it at arm’s length.

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