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Other Duties as Assigned: The Universal Impact of a Small Branch Campus

Branch campuses cater to nontraditional students, who make up a larger chunk of higher education enrollment and whose diversity require tailor-made education, putting branch campuses on the cutting edge of higher ed. 

As the smallest, newest campus in a large university system, we are the Pluto of academia: small, distant and often questioning our status as a planet.

But in that ambiguity is the power of unique perspective. With a public-health-crisis-fueled decline in college enrollment and the ongoing evolution in student demographics, the landscape of higher education is undergoing a seismic shift. Yet, it’s in these very challenges that branch campuses like ours find their strength. Our ability to be nimble, adapt quickly and take on other duties as assigned sets us apart from the long-established campuses in our system.

I serve the Everett campus of Washington State University. We are the youngest of our system’s six campuses; our first (and currently only) campus building opened on August 15, 2017. Allow me to illustrate how new we are. My responsibilities include managing our campus social media presence. So, smiling like a proud parent, when I updated our Twitter account this summer, I entered the ribbon-cutting day as the campus’s birthday. Then, I blinked bemusedly at the screen that now said, “Your page has been locked down” for violating the platform’s age policy, tucked my tail between my legs, fell upon the mercy of the customer representative to fix it while they promised, “I’m laughing with you, not at you.”

Despite a hiccup here and there, the results of our adaptability and resilience speak for themselves. We recently celebrated a milestone—while other campuses’ enrollments stayed flat or decreased, we achieved a 15% increase in enrollment over last year. This remarkable uptick didn’t come out of nowhere. For most of our team, we wound up on Pluto because we have a knack for finding the needle in the haystack, the audacity to seek unconventional solutions and the belief that routine is for assembly lines, not people. We all arrived here following different pathways, united by our shared ability to embrace other duties as assigned.

It’s a true gem of a bullet point. Innocently tucked away at the very end of most job descriptions, often after a long list of specific tasks, in a smaller font and maybe even preceded by an asterisk, you’ll find this seemingly benign phrase. The professional equivalent of a parent’s “because I said so,” that phrase is the wild card of any gig, the catch-all, the “we’re not sure what else might pop up, but something will, and you’ll probably have to deal with it.”

On a sprawling, established campus, the standard definition of other duties might mean attending an extra meeting and serving on some unanticipated search committees. But in today’s higher education landscape, it carries a more robust and weightier meaning. There is a cultural shift afoot surrounding our practices and expectations. We need to sacrifice rigidity and be willing to reinvent and explore fresh strategies that cater to our students’, workforce’s and communities’ needs, regardless of whether the task falls neatly into our job descriptions. Moreover, branch campuses especially have the distinct role of catering to nontraditional students. Our small footprint and hyperlocal focus foster tailored programs and a deep understanding of local community needs. We pivot like a startup does to offer relevant and adaptable educational experiences.

On one hand, growth requires a creative, proactive approach to an unpredictable future. On the other, it’s impossible to realize growth without practically and efficiently improving management practices and optimizing our resources. It’s not just about adapting; it’s about leading the change. Institutions that have shown flexibility in their policies and practices have reported better success in attracting and retaining students; survival in the modern educational landscape is not just about adaptation but about transformation.

It’s a little like playing Whac-A-Mole on repeat; challenges, much like those sneaky moles, pop up when least expected and demand immediate attention. Just when you’ve addressed one, another cheekily pokes into view. The game is never the same twice. It hones our skills, keeps our peripheral vision sharp and helps us avoid distractions and continuously adapt to changing circumstances. Each fortuitous run-in with a mole offers an opportunity to grow, innovate and further refine our approach.

Whether a branch, satellite, or co-campus, we are more than a simple offshoot of our main counterpart. We are the unsung heroes of higher education, strategically filling gaps in tertiary education access, especially in overlooked and underserved areas. In short, universities with diverse branch campuses are critical in driving economic vitality. They go a step beyond education and include a focus on community development. Each campus offers programs tailored to local needs to ensure they equip students with the academic and professional skills needed to meet local workforce demands. In turn, a community filled with qualified, civic-minded graduates attracts new businesses, stimulates entrepreneurship and boosts regional prosperity.

Our campus remains keenly aware that Pluto is part of a larger constellation, with each campus in the system playing a pivotal role in the collective success. Sure, the interplay among campuses can sometimes be messy, with overlapping responsibilities and differing priorities, but this collaboration makes us strong. Together, we ensure our large research university can evolve, innovate and remain relevant in an ever-changing educational landscape. Branch campuses like ours act as catalysts for this evolution, bringing fresh perspectives and adaptive strategies to the table.

The need to focus on the periphery as well as the road ahead means that our titles might say one thing, but the roles we play are diverse and ever-changing. And this unpredictability, the other duties as assigned, keep us on our toes and make each day an adventure.

In the realm of higher education, every campus—be it flagship or branch—has its singular narrative. Like Pluto, we may be small and seemingly distant, but our impact on the higher education universe is undeniable. We continue to chart our course here at WSU Everett and are committed to transparency and collaboration. Our website is always available for a closer look at our initiatives and updates. And for those who share our passion for redefining higher education’s boundaries, we’re just a LinkedIn message away.