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Panoramic view of the University of California, San Diego, campus with the ocean in the background.

The University of California, San Diego, reimagined how its extended studies division serves the community.

Our university used to have a traditional view of University Extension as an outward-facing, auxiliary enterprise, providing professional and continuing education while serving as a community nexus. Regarded as a self-sufficient entity with its own goals and priorities, it had a budget separate from other academic affairs units and maintained its own educational technology systems. Over a 40-year history of operating in this mode, which resembled what was done at peer institutions, our University Extension became successful and externally visible, boasting deep community networks and demonstrable impact.

Shifts in the landscape of public higher education have nudged us to rethink this approach. Policy changes at the federal, state and local levels are increasing emphasis on promoting economic mobility and workforce development through education. In addition, anticipated career impacts drive many students’ enrollment choices, whether in selecting undergraduate majors or choosing postgraduate programs. Acquiring skills-based and experiential training alongside a traditional academic curriculum is becoming a higher priority.

In this context, we realized that some of Extension’s capabilities could be leveraged toward supporting the broader goals of the University of California, San Diego. Extension’s community access could extend and diversify the university’s reach by broadening the student base, particularly by connecting with underserved groups. The strengths in market analysis and the regular consultation with employers or workforce boards that let Extension adapt rapidly to changes in workforce needs could help the university identify programmatic gaps and emerging trends to inform future degree offerings. Furthermore, Extension programs have been a laboratory to explore fresh educational modalities as new technologies emerge; the lessons learned in continuing and professional education programs could be applied to other academic endeavors.

Yet our traditional Extension model was limiting our ability to leverage these capabilities. On the one hand, Extension’s work with nonmatriculated students was perceived as setting it apart from the university’s core academic mission rather than enriching its multigenerational, multicultural reach. Extension’s strengths were not well understood within the university, nor were the potential benefits of collaboration with Extension appreciated. Consequently, there was no deep intellectual connection with the academic schools and departments. The emphasis on differentiation, rather than on commonalities among the populations served by Extension and academic units, also meant that opportunities for merging enterprise-level systems for greater efficiency or sharing data for mutual benefit were not pursued.

The lack of uniform systems then hindered the university’s ability to develop a comprehensive view of our students and community. For instance, without shared data systems, the valuable work that Extension was doing to help underrepresented communities prepare to access higher education was not fully leveraged to assist our recruitment of a diverse applicant pool. Nor did Extension’s reach into the regional economy fully inform our academic and research programs. Finally, a lack of fluid communication between Extension and the rest of campus hindered possibilities for educational innovation.

Over the past five years, we have evolved a new vision for Extension, dovetailed with our view of the role of the modern public research university as being student-centered, research-focused and service-oriented, with a strong emphasis on multidirectional community engagement. Extension becomes integral to the institutional mission in this context, overtly supporting the university’s strategic plan and aligning its aims with that plan. It reciprocally draws on the university’s strengths and lends its expertise to university endeavors, serving as an intellectual partner on educational topics as well as community-serving strategies. And it facilitates deep partnerships throughout the university and with external communities.

In the rest of this essay, we will discuss the processes we have used for developing and implementing this vision. We hope our experiences will help other institutions undertake strategic planning in their extended studies units, for universitywide benefit.

Planning for Change

We adopted an incremental and integrative process for defining the new vision, building support for it and beginning to bring it to life. The first step was to launch a work group on the Evolution of Extension to advise the dean of extension and the executive vice chancellor. Work-group members included senior leaders from Extension and academic affairs, representatives from academic units that were current or natural future partners of Extension, and extended studies experts from peer institutions.

The work group was charged with imagining future directions for intellectual and operational collaboration between Extension and the rest of the campus, aligned with Extension’s core strengths and university priorities. The goal was to make Extension a more integral part of academic affairs and the university while preserving key elements of its portfolio that are unique within the University of California system and especially valuable to the San Diego community.

The work group’s recommendations were formally received, discussed and endorsed by the executive vice chancellor and the Extension dean. They were then overtly integrated into a search for the next dean; several work-group members served on the dean search advisory committee to provide continuity and consistency. Ultimately, the recommendations formed a foundation for the new dean’s initial strategic planning exercises.

What made this approach powerful and applicable elsewhere is that the work group and its report became a central part of the mechanism by which Extension was transforming its own role within the university, rather than having change imposed on it from the outside. This allowed stakeholders to express their perspectives and feel included in the process. It increased existing partners’ awareness of how they could leverage Extension’s capabilities to advance their own missions. And it spurred conversations across the university that triggered fresh interest in Extension and created new collaborative opportunities with additional academic and administrative units.

Implementing Change

As a result of the planning process, we have implemented several structural changes.

First, we refashioned University Extension into a Division of Extended Studies, parallel to the two existing divisions focused on undergraduate and graduate education and distinct from the 12 discipline-focused academic schools. Defining the trio of cross-cutting divisions within the university has clarified our expectation that every discipline should connect with students at all levels: precollege, undergraduate, graduate and postdegree. It also makes the educational mission of extended studies more visible to university colleagues and the public.

We pulled extended studies into the university’s information technology infrastructure so it uses a common learning management system and is a partner in the ongoing development of a new student information system. This provides students greater consistency and a smoother handoff as they move among programs in our three divisions during their educational journeys; an undergraduate who pursues an extended studies certificate or a midcareer professional who follows an executive education course with a graduate degree program should find the experience seamless. Moreover, integration of other IT systems allows data to be robustly shared among programs to serve students better and inform future offerings.

We also pulled extended studies into the university’s annual budget and planning process alongside other divisions and schools. While extended studies is still expected to create and operate self-sustaining programs for its nonmatriculated students, being part of the larger strategic planning exercise affords more transparency. It also emphasizes the expectation for collaborating with academic units.

Finally, the dean of extended studies now joins the deans of undergraduate and graduate education as a participant in two key leadership groups that meet with the executive vice chancellor frequently to discuss a mix of emergent and strategic matters: the council of academic deans and the senior team of administrative leaders. This inclusion visibly confirms extended studies’ role in the university’s academic ecosystem and reinforces the university’s commitment to serve all learners across their lifespan.

While the infrastructure changes are helping the division connect with other parts of the university logistically, the more qualitative alterations that simply include extended studies in typical processes and conversations have become equally important. This is worth considering when trying to make changes under resource-constrained circumstances.

Results of the Change Process

Our new Division of Extended Studies is building on the external legacy of Extension while carrying its expertise into the university’s core, in alignment with the university’s strategic plan. The division’s work now comprises three main avenues: programs led primarily by the division, projects undertaken as partnerships with particular university units and campus-level initiatives in which the division plays a key role.

The unique and outward-facing programs that have long been extended studies’ core strength remain vital to its work. Many of these focus on uplifting underserved communities, providing nondegree educational opportunities to nontraditional learners or offering workforce development at multiple career stages. Some involve piloting new ways for learners to finance an education. Others are testing the use of community spaces for educational initiatives. Still others are exploring the power of informal distance education to impact larger audiences. The experimental aspects of these division-led programs deepen the university’s connections with the rest of San Diego and identify new pathways for the rest of the university to explore.

In addition, extended studies now collaborates more regularly on department-specific projects with various academic and administrative partners. Departments have been experiencing how the division can be both a logistical partner and, where appropriate, an intellectual partner. For example, as academic units seek to create nontraditional degree and certificate programs, the division can help them validate the likely market, choose appropriate teaching modalities and design wraparound support for students. When faculty and departments pursue inclusive community engagement, the division’s strong community networks can make it a valuable partner. Finally, as we seek to improve the student experience, extended studies can offer short-term skill-based training and project-based learning opportunities that help students connect their studies to future careers.

Finally, extended studies has been leveraging its intellectual expertise and operational strengths to take on new strategic roles at the university level. One such role involves training university staff on essential topics such as fund management and process improvement. Another example is leading applied research projects within the Applied Research Center for Civility that the university has co-created with the National Conflict Resolution Center. Similarly, the division is serving as the infrastructure backbone for academic affairs’ strategic initiative on Erasing Equity Gaps via Collective Impact. In each case, extended studies has prior relevant experience carrying out similar work for external customers but had not previously applied that experience within the university.

In short, UC San Diego’s repositioned and better-leveraged Division of Extended Studies now stands alongside our other academic schools and divisions as a valued and active partner, able to both undertake unique endeavors and contribute to universitywide strategic initiatives. We hope our experience will help other institutions establish a holistic vision for taking best advantage of their strengths in extended studies.

Elizabeth H. Simmons is executive vice chancellor at the University of California, San Diego. Hugo Villar is dean of the Division of Extended Studies at UC San Diego.

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