This essay was originally published in Centennial Conversations: Essential Essays in Professional, Continuing, and Online Education (2015).

As the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) celebrates its 100th anniversary, it is fitting to reflect that the association’s birth followed, but mirrored, that of the American research university. Although coming nearly thirty years after the establishment of the Johns Hopkins University in 1886, UPCEA, then the National University Extension Association (NUEA), comprised twenty-two research universities; of these, eighteen were state or land-grant institutions while the other four were private, highly selective, and urban. From its inception UPCEA’s mission and vision as the association to foster extended education and public service was thus intertwined with that of the research university. This essay will review the relationship between the two and suggest an intrinsic tension that has manifested itself in both successes and failures over the past one hundred years. Particular attention will be paid to 1990–2015. While the term research university now refers to more than three hundred higher education institutions in the United States, this perspective will be influenced by those one hundred or so that rank highest in research funding, national and international rankings, and the number of doctoral graduates. These universities—due to size, wealth, productivity and influence on public policy and popular attention—set the tone for the discussion surrounding the research and continuing education nexus.

Despite the importance of continuing education in the broader stream of higher education and its record of achievement, its role is often neglected in the professional literature on higher and postsecondary education. For example, in the otherwise encyclopedic compendium American Higher Education Transformed, 1940–2005, Smith and Bender pay almost no attention to continuing education. Lifelong learning is treated briefly in an essay by former New York University president John Sawhill, reprinted from Change magazine. Harping on the historic marginality of adult education, Sawhill offers the cautionary warning that without adequate service—albeit not defined—to the adult and nontraditional student, “lifelong learning could be the scandal of the next decade.” The obvious omission of continuing education in the Smith and Bender volume is especially vexing, since its focus is higher education’s transformation, with particular attention to post–World War II America. In his benchmark work The Emergence of the American University, Laurence Veysey exhaustively examines the internal and external forces that created the American research university. While chapters are devoted to utility and the synthesis of otherwise disparate missions, continuing education is not mentioned. Other thought leaders in higher education, like Henry Rosovsky in The University: An Owner’s Manual and Derek Bok in Universities in the Marketplace, also stand silent on continuing education in the research university.

Within the continuing education literature itself, with reference to its role in the research university, scholarship over the past thirty or more years has centered on organizational structure—centralization versus decentralization. That is, should continuing education be an autonomous organization analogous to an academic college or should it be distributed across the traditional academic structure of colleges, schools, and departments? In part this reflects a reality of academic organization: the continuing expansion and contraction of continuing education units on university campuses. While exploring organizational dichotomy has added to our understanding of continuing education as a structure and function, it has delimited the focus. Rather than viewing continuing education as a university mission, it has explored it as an organized enterprise. Given the expanded importance of lifelong learning motivated by the exponential growth of knowledge and technological sophistication since UPCEA’s 75th anniversary in 1990, a broader view is warranted.

This essay owes an intellectual debt to Nicholas Lemann’s “The Soul of the Research University,” a 2014 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. He suggests that “the two most important developments in American higher education in the 19th century were, arguably, contradictory.” He refers here to the Morrill Act (1862), which led to mass higher education in the United States, and just fourteen years later the establishment of Johns Hopkins University. Continuing education in the research university shares this intellectual paradox. It celebrates Ezra Cornell’s aspiration to provide any study or body of knowledge to any person. Conversely, the epistemology and method on which the knowledge is based comes from a rigidly monitored process of peer review and selectivity. The inherent tension and its promise and peril will frame what follows.

For purposes of clarity and reader friendliness, this essay will be a “play in four acts.” First, it will outline the fundamental ingredients and values of the research university. Second, continuing education will receive the same treatment. Third, the nexus of the research university and continuing education will be considered from one argument-driven perspective. Finally, some heuristic hunches or future gazing will be presented as UPCEA celebrates its centennial.


The Research University

Although Yale awarded the first PhD in the United States in 1861, the research university took form with the founding of Johns Hopkins and Clark University as primarily graduate universities in the 1870s and 1880s and was enhanced with the founding of the University of Chicago in 1892. Rooted in the ideals of the German university, which provided the training and socialization for many in the professoriate by the 1890s, academic freedom was fundamental to the idea and vision of the research university. Drawn from the German ideals of Lernfreiheit and Lehrfreiheit—the professor’s freedom to explore and disseminate the results of research-based inquiry free from external and, of acute concern, government interference—academic freedom set the process and metrics on which the professor’s work would be assessed. If research was the means to identify truth, who best to judge the methods used and the results shared than fellow members of the same discipline. Epistemological validity depended on peer review, and juried publication in specialized journals or at academic conferences became the gold standard. The rise in number and prestige of professional associations and journals governed by academic disciplines solidified this precedent. In essence, the professoriate became an independent and self-regulating body charged with maintaining intellectual rigor free from external demands or requirements. This professionalization of the faculty was expedited as these professional societies and associations were guided by the norms and standards of academic disciplines, not institutional expectations. Larry Cuban (1999) contends that “scholars trumped teachers” to make the research university the centerpiece for American higher education.

Social, economic, technological, and demographic trends since 1990 have served to intensify and institutionalize the place of the research university. Three particular factors are noted here. First, the half-life of knowledge has become reality in light of an explosion in basic research at the university level. While not the only agent charged with the creation of knowledge, the research university has enjoyed special privilege in the form of escalating dollars for fundamental research, particularly from the federal government. This role as arbiter of defining knowledge in its pure form brings with it unique status as a gatekeeper to upward social mobility for those accessing and benefiting from the knowledge discovered and knowledge applied in teaching and learning. Second, globalization and the essentiality of intellectual capital have elevated the American research university to primary status in a worldwide talent competition. Laboratories, classrooms, and seminar rooms increasingly bring an international professoriate and student body to the American research university. In turn, research becomes a common knowledge and language that transcends the traditional divisions among nation states. A third trend—technological innovation—demonstrates the role of basic research. While innovation in the last twenty years has been born in garages and garrets as well as the university, the flow of dollars and accompanying prestige has not exempted the research campus. Technology transfer, intellectual property, and knowledge transformation all are hallmarks. Research universities have become key players in economic development, as is evident in signal achievements like the Route 28 corridor in Massachusetts, North Carolina’s Research Triangle, and Silicon Valley.


Continuing Education

Values of intellectual integrity, the discovery of knowledge, and a cosmopolitan worldview set the tone for the research university. Yet, many of those founding UPCEA institutions, while driven by research, also shared a second and equally vital impulse in American higher education—democratization. While democratization was certainly fundamental to public state and land-grant universities, private universities also were obligated to serve the public good. Social trends cited earlier have only exacerbated the demands from multiple stakeholders, including government, corporations, funding sources, and the media, that the knowledge discovered be applied to the needs of a democratic society. Public policy encouraged this egalitarian impulse as well.

The dialogue between knowledge as an ideal and knowledge as utility was most evident in the land-grant and public flagship universities. For the former, the mission statement of its founding charter in the Morrill Act appears straightforward: “to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions of life.” Both the theoretical and the applied are given equal status in these words, but implementation posed a challenge. An early solution was the establishment of the Cooperative Extension System in 1914 through federal legislation. This recognized a reality that between 1906 and 1913 twenty-eight universities had already organized a unit for extension work.

Early efforts at continuing education fell under the rubric of public service—the third element (besides research and teaching) of the three-legged stool of the university. While cooperative extension developed an administrative and programmatic system centered mainly but not exclusively on agriculture and family life, university extension became the catchall for other attempts to apply knowledge to broader social concerns and audiences, in forms ranging from correspondence and evening classes to conferences, institutes, lecture series, and symposia. Continuing education was positioned as a gateway between the university as a fount of knowledge and the general public in whose service this knowledge was to be applied.

Since 1990 the place of continuing education on the research university landscape has become a focus of conflict, cooperation, and compromise. What once was peripheral to the core mission now is under the spotlight from campus administrators, faculty, and constituencies. Why? First, the marketplace for knowledge consumption has broadened. As mentioned earlier, in the well-documented global economy intellectual capital is the driving engine. So, the university competes in an international marketplace. Continuing education becomes the means to meet this reality while still maintaining the boundary between the campus core and the external demand. A second factor, albeit more localized, is the exponential growth of adult learners as a market for continuous education. For the research university this takes many forms, from degree completion to organizational learning. Expectations for accountability and tighter guidelines for professional credentialing are today more pronounced than ever. Finally, financial pressures in an era of dwindling support for the public research university puts continuing education in front as an income generator rather than expense unit.

Continuing education’s emergence as a component of traditional academic units is an ever-growing feature of the contemporary research university. In the period leading up to 1990 continuing education was more likely to be defined as an organization with a specific structure and function within the broader academic enterprise. Analysis was limited to the centralization-decentralization debate cited above. Today, continuing education is a means to disseminate, codify, and apply basic knowledge. Professional schools and colleges—whether colleges of business and engineering offering executive and advanced technical education or medical, law, and dental schools presenting state-of-the-art content—have joined the division (or college) of continuing education at the research university. Still, the most common manifestations are in professional fields where the line between basic and applied knowledge is thinnest.


Research and Continuing Education Nexus: Tension and Triumph

At the research university, research as a mission stands with continuing education as a means to meet internal resource needs and external expectations. But increasing concern about the cost of a university education and the concomitant student debt, calls for organizational efficiency from all branches of government and the public, questions of the value of a degree, and the rise of the for-profit university all contribute to creating a confused terrain on which research and continuing education meet in 2015.

What then for the nexus of research and continuing education in the research university? An earlier foray by the Kellogg Commission in 1992 to examine how the university could better serve the commonweal seemed to anticipate this tension, arguing that, while society had problems, universities had departments. Framed by discipline-based inquiry, governed by the norm of academic freedom, and organized into departments, the research university was not structured to respond in a timely and critical way to the external society. Citing as its intentional goal an “engaged university,” the commission identified the dichotomy between research as an intrinsic value and its utility that was and remains sobering. Why then this inherent tension?

From federal financial largesse for infrastructure and talent to technology transfer and knowledge partnerships exemplified by the start-up company, research touches the life of its home institution. Over the past quarter century, the search for prestige as measured in dollars, rankings, and reputational status has accelerated the importance of research. As continuing educators in the research university context, it is fundamental to understand the research process and then determine its role in meeting our mission. The challenge is that the research professor as an individual or the academic department as a collective body begins from a different fundamental premise than the continuing educator or continuing education organization.

Research is a quest for discovery through a prescriptively defined and shared process, whether through induction or deduction or, in conventional terms, quantitative or qualitative investigation. It is based on a foundation laid in graduate school and built on the epistemology and methodology set by each discipline or applied field of study in professional fields. The guardians and arbiters are fellow members acting in an almost guild-like fashion. Defining what is of value and meritorious is their exclusive domain. Academic journals, conference presentations, and the gatherings of professional associations and societies enjoy a status hierarchy and can determine a faculty member’s career trajectory or a department’s ranking. Ideas are exchanged within a tightly defined cohort and sphere of importance. The worth of the research in a marketplace outside this fraternity is of little or no importance and in fact may be a source of academic disdain. A reward system—whether as essential as granting tenure or simply rising in the academic firmament—is predicated on positive peer review, evaluation, and judgment.

What is the role of continuing education in this nexus? If research is evaluated and assessed value in a rigidly defined scope of influence, continuing education operates by definition in an open marketplace defined by market requirements of demand, price, utility, and consequentiality. The social forces of technological sophistication, globalization, and competition have in the past twenty-five years only heightened the market for commercialized knowledge; higher education in general has become a commodity. In the research university this trend often sheds a spotlight on continuing education. With a historical legacy of extending campus boundaries to serve stakeholders (often codified in legislative mandate for land-grant and state universities) and a financially self-supporting business model, continuing education is seen as the appropriate response.

Within the research university there is an implicit tension between the norms of research free from evaluation by “amateurs” and the continuing education mission to serve the general public. Yet, the irony is that for continuing education in a research university to distinguish itself from curriculum and services offered by myriad other providers, it must bring that very research through application to a marketplace. The test for continuing education more often than not is whether market demand is met through enrollment, financial remuneration, or partnerships that will benefit the home institution more broadly. The faculty who create the knowledge with the guiding norm of academic freedom are innately suspicious and often disdainful of subjecting their work to the market decision made by individual customers and organizational and professional clients to “buy” the knowledge. In the nexus knowledge must be transformed to stay both true to its standard and judged as being of value in the marketplace of continuing higher education.

Continuing educators are by temperament and vocation a practical lot. As a state and land-grant, research extensive university with an outreach mission housed in the Division of Professional and Continuing Studies, the University of Delaware faces this challenge: How to bring timely and consequential research to people and organizations? One successful example is a joint venture between the division and the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics. Through the Organizational Learning Solutions office, custom-designed programs in leadership, project and technology management, and strategy are presented by research-based faculty to corporate, government, and health-care organizations. In turn, these organizations provide a setting for those same faculty and their graduate students to engage in research. This exchange relationship benefits both parties and identifies a common ground for the application and discovery of knowledge.

Why did this nexus triumph when comparable efforts fell short of the mark? The inquiry process in an applied field like management or business administration, while guided by peer review, is governed by external norms of relevance to professional practice. Tests of consequence in a more general market are a norm. The community of recipients enhances rather than diminishes the researcher’s freedom.


Toward the Future: 2015 and Beyond

The social, demographic, and technological dynamics mentioned in this essay and throughout the volume should only accelerate throughout the twenty-first century. With knowledge growing geometrically and technological obsolescence a recurring threat, continuing education will become an even more prominent player in the research university. Not limited to its own organizational domain, continuing education cuts across colleges, departments, and schools. Joint ventures like Coursera and EdX demonstrate the affinity of research universities to cluster together and share their academic resources to provide mass open education. Public and government thirst for intellectual capital as the means to maintain a Western standard of living increases the applied role of research in efforts like technology transfer and university-corporate partnerships.

Still, the research university is subject to the same pressures affecting education at all levels. Three of particular relevance are cost, accessibility, and consequentiality. Cost is driven by the question of who pays. A once seemingly endless flow of federal dollars built the research university. Whether driven by considerations of national defense, as evident in the entrepreneurial university of the Cold War era, or improving health and human welfare, government funding reached an apex in the early twenty-first-century stimulus initiative under the Obama administration. That monetary well is running dry; yet, at the same time, federal regulation and accountability expectations have increased. Continuing education offers an alternative mechanism for revenue generation through sponsored research and its application under market demands and requirements. Those clients, and more significantly those paying, will exacerbate the tension between pure and applied research. Continuing education will become to an even greater degree an individual rather than public good. As early as 1998 Burton Clark foresaw this trend in Creating Entrepreneurial Universities: Organizational Pathways of Transformation.

Access to continuing education in the research university raises the question of who benefits. Continuing education’s business model is market sensitive, and price can limit the access of those individuals and organizations that could benefit. Public service as subsidized enterprise will become even rarer. Thus, the gap between the educational haves who can afford continuing education and the have-nots is most likely to grow in the research university. Reputational status and limited access may only enhance the prestige of continuing education while serving a more limited audience with a higher socioeconomic and professional/occupational profile. For UPCEA the irony could be that an association with roots in extending knowledge may come to represent a highly selective sector of higher education.

Finally, how will the consequentiality of research-based continuing education be assessed? Will business and economic demands threaten the norms of academic freedom and peer review? The impact of the celebration of STEM education and a de-emphasis on the humanities and many social sciences is already clear. A depressed employment forecast for the traditional academic career and the decline in tenure track faculty positions are daily fodder for the media. In response, continuing education and those who provide its leadership have a moral as well as professional obligation. Especially in the research university, continuing education ought to temper market responsiveness with allegiance to the values that inform the enterprise. The theoretical and the practical informed by basic and applied research inform continuing education. Learning as an end in itself and as an instrument for living can enjoy balance in the continuing education organization.

Continuing education and research enjoy a symbiotic relationship that enriches both. Research is the lifeblood of the programs and services provided to a marketplace which, while receptive to knowledge, is at the same time somewhat suspicious of academic freedom. Yet the creative tension is what makes research university–centered continuing education a unique and signal feature in the complex landscape of higher education.



Bok, Derek. 2003. Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Clark, Burton R. 1998. Creating Entrepreneurial Universities: Organizational Pathways of Transformation. Bingley, UK: Emerald Group.

Cuban, Larry. 1999. How Scholars Trumped Teachers: Change without Reform in University Curriculum, Teaching, and Research, 1890–1990. New York: Teachers College Press.

Lemann, Nicholas. 2014. “The Soul of the Research University.” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 28. Accessed at /The-Soul-of-the-Research/146155/.

Rosovsky, Henry. 1991. The University: An Owner’s Manual. New York: W. W. Norton.

Smith, Wilson, and Thomas Bender, eds. 2008. American Higher Education Transformed 1940–2005: Documenting the National Discourse. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Veysey, Laurence R. 1965. The Emergence of the American University. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


This essay was originally published in Centennial Conversations: Essential Essays in Professional, Continuing, and Online Education (2015).