The Pulse of Higher Ed

Perspectives on Online and Professional Education
from UPCEA’s Research and Consulting Experts

Our Elusive Common Denominator

A man (Jay Halfond) smiles at the camera for a headshot.

By Jay Halfond

About fifteen years ago, I hosted a pre-conference dean’s workshop at UPCEA’s Annual Conference. I opened the session by asking participants to compare their units with those of the person next to them.  Not surprisingly, they highlighted their dissimilarities. Were this a meeting of, say, law school deans, they might have commiserated over mutual challenges – raising money, hiring faculty, chasing rankings, and so on. But their fundamental portfolio would not differ much. We, on the other hand, are characterized by how different we are from each other. 

Beginning even with our names – which evolved from “extension” or “continuing education” or sometimes even the “evening college” – to more recent names often with “professional” in the title. These might be led by those titled deans, directors, vice-presidents, associate provosts – and can report to a range of university leaders. 

Some online and professional education leaders (whether or not their official name) have broad university-wide responsibilities – supporting online education, overseeing summer term, participating in international initiatives, introducing credential innovation, and, even in some smaller institutions, accountability for graduate programs.   

Some online and professional education entities are behemoths, others boutiques. Some oversee just noncredit programs, and others host degree programs as well. Some create their own degrees; others support the traditional colleges within their universities. Some hire their own full- or part-time faculty, and others rely on their schools or colleges to staff courses. Some are budgeted as cost-centers, others self-supporting. Some are highly integrated in the institutional mainstream; others operate more on the periphery.

Many online and professional education entities have a mix of these models baked into their structure. When, as dean, I was asked in UPCEA surveys to characterize Boston University’s Metropolitan College as either academically centralized (that is, in control of our own degrees) or decentralized (beholden to BU’s other colleges), I was paralyzed by this binary choice. We mostly relied on our own degrees, but sometimes cobranded others with a fellow college, or, in some cases, invisibly supported another college. We hired our own faculty, but occasionally recruited faculty on overload from other parts of the university.  

I was stymied when simply asked what Metropolitan College is – and I worked to come up with the concise elevator speech. MET is a “university within a university,” an “innovative hub” for the university, an advocate for the “adult learner” – but my generalizations never quite captured our range and essence, or clearly differentiated us from other parts of the university. Many I met in greater Boston thought they already knew MET from one familiar program and generalized accordingly – perhaps because they had attended a culinary class or event, knew a midcareer professional who earned a certificate or degree, or read about our prison program.

I learned to accept, defend, and even embrace our quirkiness, and appreciate that we served an ever-changing role in an ever-changing university in an ever-changing world. I realized that had I chosen complacency over growth, we would have shrunk in size and missed opportunities to significantly expand our audience and take the university in new directions. 

This agility to change in ways critically important to our institutions is even more prevalent now across our field. In the recent decade, UPCEA has evolved from a guild of distinct, somewhat recognizable entities in most universities – to a much bigger tent of those who are committed (regardless of where they sit in their institutions) to online learning, microcredentials, working professional students, and addressing the educational needs of their local communities. It has become even more challenging to articulate our common denominator. 

Those under this umbrella of online and professional continuing education are even more susceptible to moving parts and changing directions in their institutional home. More than two-thirds of UPCEA’s members experienced reorganizations in just the past five years. They are increasingly vulnerable to restructuring, takeovers of particular programs and functions, and the whims and visions of new leaders. This is often a sign of success – and willingness to embrace change. Three-quarters of our institutional representatives believe their units are agile and innovative. 

I am convinced that – like snowflakes – no two online and professional education enterprises are ever the same, or, for that matter, stay the same for very long. They may look slightly similar from afar, but this masks their institution-specific quirks and qualities. We exist in an almost perpetual identity crisis. We invite attention if we are too small or become vulnerable when we grow too large.

How do we turn an identity crisis into an asset? Our common characteristic is that there is no limit to our potential role in an institution – even when we might have to navigate a perilous path, and even though we are subject to instability and forces beyond our control. Our common professional function is to be at the nexus of what makes an institution dynamic, exciting, and important: changing workforce needs and demographic realities, new modes of learning, and unlimited opportunities to enhance individual and social change through lifelong learning. Through our breadth, agility, and generosity of spirit, our institutions often (or should) turn to us. Even though I found my deanship daunting almost daily, as I navigated how best to innovate and grow, it never occurred to me that any other university job could ever be as exhilarating and fulfilling.

Our common dominator is that we thrive in the often most uncertain and unsettling aspects of academe, and our professional association is even more critically important because of this.

Jay A. Halfond is the former dean of Boston University’s Metropolitan College, a Professor of the Practice Emeritus at BU, and now UPCEA’s Vice-President for Institutional Strategy, overseeing our corps of Strategic Advisors in supporting the growing need for UPCEA’s consulting services.  He can be reached at [email protected].

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