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Positioning For Strength In Times Of Institutional Change

Positioning For Strength In Times Of Institutional Change
Continuing Education units must position themselves to provide indispensible value and lead discussions about their institution’s future. Photo by Marcy Kellar.

The following is a Q&A conducted with University Professional and Continuing Education Chief Executive Officer Robert Hansen. In this interview, Hansen discusses the positioning of Continuing Education units as the education industry undergoes its transformation. Drawing on his experience at the helm of UPCEA and his time as a chief continuing education officer at two institutions, Hansen argues that Continuing Education units must lead discussions on their institution’s future and utilize their business-mindedness to improve the efficiency of higher education institutions.

  1. What alterations are being forced on continuing education units to accommodate for higher education’s change?

While it is true that alterations to Continuing Education (CE) units are often driven by larger changes within higher education, I would not choose the word “force.”

Indeed, in many circumstances, long held dreams of CE leaders, previously unacceptable to the core of the institution, are now not only possible but increasingly necessary. For much of the past hundred years, CE units have been at the margins of institutional mission. Even when serving adults was reflected in the official mission, it was often not understood or embraced by faculty and central administration. Now, CE units are more frequently seen as a necessary element of a sustainable university mission and “business” model. Presidents and provosts alarmed by the long slow decline of traditional age students—especially at many regional private and public universities, and in regions of the country experiencing population loss—look to CE units to expand the institution’s footprint in the adult market. Many of them are asking CE deans and directors to partner internally with traditional colleges and schools, which are ill-equipped to compete in the adult market, to increase enrollment. Other presidents and provosts have taken the bolder step of transforming traditional CE divisions that function as support units for the core institution into schools of professional or continuing studies with their own degree programs and governance structure.

Therefore, far from being forced into changes antithetical to their nature or best interests, CE units are being increasingly recognized for the valuable contributions they make to the larger organization.

  1. In your opinion, are CE units better off autonomous or integrated into their main campus? Why?

I tend to believe that the days of operating in splendid isolation from the main campus are over. If a CE dean has escaped unnoticed for years, or even decades, he or she is always one provost or president away from a reorganization that integrates their unit within the larger institution.

In an era of shrinking resources, this dynamic of change is both necessary and unavoidable. University leaders simply must do more with less, and that means there is little tolerance for the inefficiencies that come with units that are off mission or that lose money. For this reason, I think it is critical for CE leaders to ask themselves the following questions: “How can I bring more value to the main campus so that my unit is seen as indispensable? What changes are being considered at my university, or what changes do I see on the horizon? How can I reposition my unit to leverage those changes for the benefit of the larger organization (and in the process, for my unit)?  How can I help lead discussions about possible outcomes or futures?

In other words, this new dynamic is not a bad thing. On the contrary, a radical change environment plays to the strength of CE units. CE has always been the most entrepreneurial wing of academe. We have always been more flexible, more open to experimentation, than the main campus. We have a golden opportunity today to reach our full potential as a profession, but only if we understand why the status quo is no longer possible and work creatively to be a part of positive change.

There is, however, one notable caveat to my comments regarding the virtues of integration. A few institutions have moved to create a separate, “for-profit” CE unit that functions without the restrictions that govern the core institution. This trend is interesting, to say the least, and bears watching, especially since CE units are uniquely able to thrive in this new model. Ideally, at least in my personal view, this model will become a viable option for more and more institutions in the next five to ten years. But it must be noted that this model is more likely to be driven by entrepreneurial boards of directors or presidents eager to create a new platform for growth and innovation than by a CE leader whose efforts to remain autonomous have finally reached their logical conclusion!

  1. How can CE units shield themselves from budget or resource cuts?

I think there are at least two effective ways to do this. The first is to work within the current system to make strategic budget cuts and/or increase revenue. This, of course, is the most common method of addressing budget cuts which all too often seem like an annual rite these days. The second is to explore more fundamental changes that reposition the unit within the larger organization, which I discussed in my answer to the last question.

Let’s begin with the first strategy. Most deans and directors now recognize the futility of making across the board cuts, which only serve to weaken the organization and jeopardize revenue streams. Indeed, this reflexive “method” invites a kind of organizational death spiral. As revenues decline, you cut staff. After budgets are cut, quality drops; when quality drops, revenue once again declines, and so on and so forth.

When I was an Associate Provost for University Outreach, I tended to use the annual budget cutting process as an opportunity to achieve what could not be done in “normal” times. I reorganized to meet new strategic priorities, eliminated off-mission units, created new units such as an office of e-learning, and repositioned talented staff from off-mission or budget-challenged enterprises to address growth in other areas. In this way I was able to combine targeted budget cuts with realistic projections of revenue growth to meet budget targets. Of course not all provosts or chief financial officers will accept the promise of net revenue increases as a substitute for budget cuts. But in my experience, most of them can be persuaded, if you make a strong, data-driven case.

If working within the system holds you harmless from truly painful cuts, then great. If not, then a more fundamental approach may be in order. This approach might involve a broader organizational change to re-align the CE unit with institutional priorities such as adult student success, expanding online learning, or community engagement. In this more fundamental approach, large tectonic plates of the institution are re-aligned along with associated budgets and resources. Previously unimaginable partnerships are suddenly possible, some of which may alleviate budgetary pressures by creating new efficiencies.

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