An Academic Rorschach Test

No entity on the American campus is as variable as professional and continuing education. It comes in all shapes and sizes. Even its name has varied over time and across the academic landscape—from Extension to Continuing Education, Lifelong Learning, Outreach, Extended Education, and now often some version of Professional and Continuing Education (PCE). Some units are colleges, others schools, divisions, offices, or departments. While continuing education is almost universal throughout American higher education, the specific details differ widely.

Seat two PCE deans next to one another and they are as likely to highlight these differences even as they share commonalities. Their authority might diverge from those whose units grant degrees, to others who support the degrees of other colleges on campus, to those who offer only noncredit certificates and programs. Their resources and organizational models vary widely. Their portfolio of disciplines and programs, their responsibility for overseeing faculty, their role in online education, and their management of satellite campuses, summer and intersession programs, conference services, and international programs also reveal the vast diversity in how professional and continuing education is defined, empowered, and structured across America’s institutions.

There is simply no entity on the American campus nearly as protean as professional and continuing education—none more capable of remolding itself to fit its times and realities. These colleges and programs serve a vital function at their institutions, even when it seems they are in constant flux in an ever-evolving role on campus. They exist more in a liquid than solid state. Comparing any PCE unit to what it was even a decade ago will reveal its dynamism and capacity to reinvent itself—even in otherwise staid, tradition-bound universities. PCE units are less bound by tradition and precedent. The instability of what constitutes professional and continuing education demonstrates, rather than diminishes, its importance.

No other entity is as likely to be coping with ongoing identity issues than a PCE unit: in its tenuous state with its fellow colleges on campus and its vulnerability to dramatic changes in its competitive landscape, and in its freedom to explore new curricular possibilities, negotiate external alliances, and clarify its place and purpose to stakeholders within and beyond the institution.  

No other entity is as malleable and responsive to changing university leadership and a constant barrage of new ideas and challenges. Nor are there established career paths, credentials, and attributes new PCE deans need to lead professional and continuing education colleges. But few other deans have such golden opportunities to set a new path for their schools. Their deanship is often the most exciting, exasperating, and potentially fulfilling one within academe.

No other entity is as challenged in articulating and clarifying its brand to its public. Deans of professional and continuing education have an uncommon difficulty giving the elevator speech on what they and their colleges do. Their schools defy glib characterization. Correcting misconceptions is a constant ordeal.

No other entity, though, is quite as adaptive or potentially vital for their institutions. Professional and continuing education serves as the primary and most promising adaptive enterprise on America’s campuses. Their senior leaders often turn to professional and continuing educators as those most able and willing to mobilize for new initiatives and growth opportunities.

Given this dynamic state, how can professional and continuing education find its gravitas, common features, and greater purpose? Entering its second century, UPCEA initiated a process to define those Hallmarks of Excellence that encompass what professional and continuing education exemplifies at its best and most comprehensive. Beginning summer 2016, a task force of national leaders (see listing elsewhere in article) collaborated to define and design a ubiquitous set of standards that proclaim what professional and continuing education should stand for and embrace.

This manifesto provides a template for the range of attributes professional and continuing education could and should have at their universities. This can be a starting point for self-assessment and aspirational efforts to create an even greater mainstream role for PCE units within their institutions.

While now a mature profession, professional and continuing education remains in many ways in perennial adolescence. This ongoing existential uncertainty, self-reflection, and willingness to change are, in fact, its greatest virtue.


Soft Power, Hard Realities

One of the most revealing features of professional and continuing education is how little it actually “owns”—including what programs are offered, who teaches in those programs, and even which students enroll. Rarely are disciplines unique to these units, rarely are their faculty distinct from their larger academic community, and rarely does the PCE college have unilateral power to control its own destiny. Professional and continuing education never even owns the full menu of adult, part-time students on its campus. By its very nature, PCE units are integrated, deferential, porous, beholden, and borderless—not qualities common to other schools and colleges on campus. They co-exist daily, and often precariously, in the larger context of their home institutions.

What, then, are those features common across professional and continuing education?  

First, professional and continuing education is the bully pulpit for post-traditional students, those who represent the emerging profile of the American student as well as targets of opportunity for enrollment and revenue growth. More boldly, this focus on the lifelong learner exemplifies the American Dream of access, self-improvement, constant renewal, and the capacity to demonstrate individual vitality in an ever-changing economy. The agility of the American populace is enhanced by a higher education that produces new skills, careers, and personal growth. Professional and continuing educators are advocates for the adult learner and routinely challenge their institution to be cognizant of the part-time, working student as more than an afterthought.

Second, professional and continuing education extends and diversifies its university in profound ways that are multigenerational, multicultural, and multinational. While others on campus discuss diversity, PCE colleges personify it. These units broaden the base of students who, in turn, enhance the faculty and student experience across the institution.

Third, professional and continuing education is not bound by traditional disciplines and their departmentalized division of labor. PCE colleges share disciplines with other university colleagues, fill gaps through emerging disciplines, and invent ways of connecting established fields. They can modify and update existing subjects, and even conceive new ones. They have the ability to respond to opportunities with little regard for their fit within longstanding, entrenched, and politicized academic structures.

Fourth, the professional and continuing education college is a test kitchen for new ideas. The successful PCE unit is a frenetic laboratory for change. PCE leaders are continuously conducting market analysis, assessing risk, and testing internal and external waters to determine the potential of new products, programs, technologies, and models—and what it will take to introduce these, even tentatively, to the public.

Fifth, professional and continuing education requires a rare blend of leadership and professional attributes, which combine a deep respect for academic culture with an innovative spirit and business acumen to develop and deliver programs that elevate their institutions. PCE leaders are the loyal subversives on campus. They understand and respect academic principles, while working to overcome internal impediments to change. They have a bias—and courage—for action.

With a willingness to experiment and evolve, a breadth that transcends existing fields and structures, and the skills to innovate, professional and continuing educators are uniquely poised to respond to the many challenges that beset American higher education. The key is for their institutions to recognize their centrality, nimbleness, and vitality as partners in guiding institutional change. PCE leaders are only as effective as their senior leadership will allow. This is a key inflection moment for this profession and will test whether professional and continuing education will be a major force in the mainstream or relegated to the backwaters of their universities.

These Hallmarks of Excellence in Professional and Continuing Education argue for a comprehensive, elevated role in their institutions, one that combines educator and innovator. This is much more than a power grab for PCE units, but a recognition and celebration of their potential breadth and influence as a potent force for change in American higher education.


Hallmarks of Excellence in Professional and Continuing Education

This exercise followed the format of its predecessor, Hallmarks of Excellence in Online Leadership, though the challenges were different. Online leadership is a fledgling profession, a tabula rasa, or blank state, seeking to define itself. Professional and continuing education, in contrast, is a mature field, with a compelling opportunity to reinvent and reassert itself. Given the protean properties of professional and continuing education, this exercise was an attempt to rationalize the unrationalizable.

We first recognized that professional and continuing education has the opportunity to proclaim its mission in sharp contrast to their fellow schools and colleges. The Hallmarks of Excellence then proceeds through the stakeholders who represent those multiple roles and daily interactions of this profession.

First is Internal Advocacy: the recognition that PCE leadership requires constant communication and collaboration with university colleagues. The second feature is Entrepreneurial Initiative, which is more embedded in the PCE DNA than anywhere else in academe. The third Hallmarks pillar, Faculty Support, is the sensitive, two-way relationship professional and continuing education has with its faculty—by utilizing their expertise and talents, and by supporting their teaching. The fourth pillar is Student Support, where the PCE college identifies potential markets, recruits students, serves their often unique needs, and integrates them into the life of the university to ensure their success.

In some universities, PCE deans also oversee their institution’s online efforts, while in others they are clients of other units responsible for digital technology. Regardless, professional and continuing education is often on the cutting edge of the role of Technology in learning and administration, which justified a fifth Hallmarks of Excellence unto itself.

The sixth pillar – External Advocacy – complements the focus on internal stakeholders by stressing the critical role that professional and continuing education plays in extending its university to contiguous and far-reaching communities. These external entities are targeted by their relevance to the mission and role of the university, the features of the region, and opportunities for partnerships and outreach.

The final Hallmarks pillar—Professionalism—is the essence of this field. How should professional and continuing education establish its identity, integrity, and image on its campuses and beyond? What are its core values and ethical principles?  

The Task Force also spotlights several themes that cross these dimensions and suggest ways that some PCE units have branched out at their home institutions. International education, summer and intersession programming, distance learning oversight, and regional economic development are notable initiatives that utilize the PCE platform in ways that serve their universities at large.

The subtext of the Hallmarks of Excellence in Professional and Continuing Education is that the profession needs to declare its strengths and values confidently, but assess itself humbly—that is, to recognize that there are many unfulfilled frontiers and to acknowledge what has yet to be achieved, as much as what has.


A Mandate for the Second Century: Staying Forever Young

This is a key moment for professional and continuing education. Can it continue to adapt, demonstrate its relevance, and contribute to the core mission and needs of its institutions? Will university leaders express their confidence by turning to professional and continuing educators to address emerging challenges and opportunities? Can PCE educators share their successes with colleagues at their universities, and across their profession?   

It is likely that the variety of forms of professional and continuing education over the last century will characterize the future as well. Like Proteus, the prophetic Greek sea-god who could mutate into different forms, professional and continuing education is likely to be forever mutable and versatile. It is important to recognize the virtues of this diversity and agility, even as we search for common ground in the years ahead.




National Task Force on the UPCEA Hallmarks of Excellence

Debbie Cavalier, Senior Vice President, CEO of Berklee Online at Berklee College of Music

Thomas Gibbons, Dean, School of Professional Studies, Northwestern University

Jay Halfond (chair), Professor of the Practice and Former Dean, Metropolitan College, Boston University

Hunt Lambert, Dean of Continuing Education and Extension School, Harvard University

Richard Novak, Vice President for Continuing Studies and Distance Education, Rutgers University

Kelly Otter, Dean, School of Continuing Studies, Georgetown University

James Pappas, Vice President for University Outreach and Dean of the College of Liberal Studies, University of Oklahoma

Sandi Pershing, Dean of Continuing Education and Assistant Vice President of Engagement, University of Utah

Emily Richardson, Dean, Hayworth School of Graduate and Continuing Studies, Queens University of Charlotte

James Schaeffer, Dean, College of Continuing Education, Old Dominion University

Reed Scull, Associate Dean, Outreach School, University of Wyoming

Karen Sibley, Vice President for Strategic Initiatives, and Dean, School of Professional Studies, Brown University

Diana Wu, Dean of Extension, University of California, Berkeley


Jay A. Halfond is Professor of the Practice at Boston University, after serving as dean of BU’s Metropolitan College for twelve years. He was Senior Fellow of the Center for Online Leadership and Strategy in 2014-15 and UPCEA’s Innovation Fellow in 2013-14. He chaired the task force led by UPCEA that generated the Hallmarks of Excellence in Online Leadership.