On UPCEA’s Centennial, Speech Presented at UPCEA 100th Annual Conference, Washington, D.C., March 30, 2015


We made it. One hundred years. To put that number in perspective, the leaders who assembled for the first annual conference in Madison, Wisconsin, were about four generations removed from most of us in the room today. But that doesn’t quite capture the difference in our worlds.


Since that first conference, we fought two world wars, Korea and Vietnam, the Cold War, and two Gulf Wars.

We witnessed the great social movements of Civil Rights and women’s liberation.

We heard the new musical forms of blues, jazz, rock, and hip hop.

Developments in technology, of course, would have struck those attending the first conference as a fantasy beyond even the wildest imagination of Jules Verne.

Mass produced cars, commercial aviation, radio, television, the moon landings, the personal computer, the Internet, and mobile devices.

For the first members, social media would have meant a formal letter on stationery inviting them to attend a meeting of colleagues gathering in Madison, Wisconsin. It would have been understood that arduous train travel was required.

If that’s not enough perspective, consider this: it had only been a few short years since the Chicago Cubs won not one but two straight World Series championships. They haven’t won since. So yes, my friends. It was a different world.

The theme of our conference is Access, Innovation, Engagement: A Century of Re-Inventing Higher Education. Our profession is a forward-leaning one. When you’re busy reinventing, you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the past. You focus on innovation. You question how things have always been done—and you look for new ways of doing things in the future.

But if there were ever a time to reflect on the past, our Centennial Conference would be it.

So today, I want to share a brief history of the association by highlighting three key inflection points in our story.

The name of the association has changed a few times over the years. It began as the National University Extension Association, with 22 institutional members. The first keynote speaker, Wisconsin President Charles Van Hise, articulated a vision that still resonates to this day: “If a university is to have as its ideal . . . service on the broadest basis, it cannot escape taking on the function of carrying knowledge to the people.”

It was an auspicious beginning for the association, yet almost as soon as it began the United States declared war on Germany. It wasn’t entirely clear that the fledgling organization would survive the Great War and its impact on the mission and audience for university extension.

And yet there were some in the federal government who believed our unique mission could be harnessed for the war effort. Indeed, President Woodrow Wilson designated $50,000 in emergency funds to help support the association’s extension divisions.

A year after the war ended in 1919, there was a concerted effort to institutionalize the association as part of the Bureau of Education within the U.S. Department of the Interior. At that time there was no independent Department of Education. The Commissioner of the Bureau of Education, Philander Claxton, was the nation’s top education official.

In an effort to make the case to Congress, Claxton wrote a letter explaining the unique mission of extension in the post-war order, and the opportunities it presented for society:

There are now…four and a half million discharged soldiers…nearly all of the them men…who are eager to take advantage of … instruction in things pertaining to their vocations, to citizenship, and to general culture. Few of them will or can go to college; practically none of them will enter the ordinary high schools; they are too old for this…A great majority of them must depend upon such opportunities as can be provided by extension education.

[And] within the past few years millions of women have been given the franchise and now have all the privileges and responsibilities of active citizenship. The adoption of the 19th amendment…will add millions more…They are conscientious; they realize they need instruction [and an] understanding of the many complex and difficult problems which, by their ballots, they will help to solve.

That was also the year when Prohibition was passed. Mr. Claxton thought the 18th Amendment would be just what the doctor ordered for university extension:

The closing of barrooms . . . has relieved large numbers of men from the temptation to spend their leisure time and money in various forms of dissipation connected with the barroom. Everywhere these working men and women are eager for instruction.

Well, if the Commissioner had been correct, it stands to reason that the repeal of Prohibition should have spelled the end of the Extension movement as we know it!

Fortunately for those of us in the room today, the Commissioner’s moral reflections were not as prescient as the rest of his letter. Thanks to the 21st Amendment, there will be a full bar at tonight’s opening reception.

The question of Prohibition aside, the Commissioner outlined so many of the themes that would be woven into this association’s rich history: access for adults, veterans, and women foremost among them.

In the end, Congress introduced several bills that would have transitioned the association into a permanent federal department. When Congress failed to appropriate the necessary funds, the loosely organized extension leaders opted for self-reliance, incorporating in Washington and establishing a dues structure to fund its work.

The next major inflection point for the association was precisely 50 years after the first conference in Madison.

Remarkably, the man who was at the center of that story is in the room with us today, Alex Charters, dean emeritus at Syracuse University and former president of the association.

At the 50th golden anniversary conference at Purdue in 1965, President Charters announced “discussions involving the establishment of a Washington office.”

A formal report on the matter argued that a professional staff headquartered in Washington could serve as a vital link between universities, the federal government, and other major associations.

In March 1966, President Charters announced the appointment of the association’s first Executive Director, and a motion was passed to establish a Washington Office.

We opened an office on Massachusetts Avenue later that year, and subsequently moved to the new National Center for Higher Education, better known by its iconic address, One Dupont Circle—or simply “One Dupont”—a name that has become synonymous with higher education policy in the U.S.

The modern era of the association had begun.

The third inflection point for the association occurred in the last several years. It was triggered not by anything the association or its members did, per se. We had been carrying out our mission for decades. Rather, it was triggered by the massive demographic shift from full-time, first-time residential students to adult and non-traditional learners, which now account for as much as 85 percent of today’s students.

It’s true that the long slow shift toward non-traditional students did not challenge the higher education establishment for the first one or two decades. That inflection point came more recently, when the business model of the traditional university was threatened by a remarkable confluence of several factors: the sharp decline in state funding, unsustainable tuition increases, the rise of online learning, competition from the private sector, and then the Great Recession.

Suddenly, there was a new sense of urgency to stabilize enrollments, which necessarily focused attention on the large adult learner market. Those of us in this room, who had always operated at the margins of our institutions, now suddenly found ourselves thrust into the center of things. The world of continuing and online education was no longer an afterthought for university leaders focused on the core institution. Now our mission, our expertise, our leadership, had become indispensable to the sustainability of all but the most elite institutions.

So here we are, right up to the present moment of our Centennial—a moment of celebration, of appreciation for what has come before, but also a moment of great import, opportunity, and responsibility for the future.


Robert J. Hansen, Ph.D., is Chief Executive Officer of UPCEA. He previously served as Associate Provost at the University of Southern Maine. Hansen also served as Assistant to the Governor for Education in the administration of James Edgar, Governor of Illinois. He holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Notre Dame.