12/30/2010 09:37 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Entrepreneurship of Extended Studies

Very few academics or lay folk give the university much credit for being innovative or entrepreneurial even though they may have whole courses dedicated to the subject.

When we hear the term "extended studies," fewer yet know what that means or what a College of Extended Studies is all about. Yet in these times calling for reinvention of the university, often the programs of extended education are leading the way.

Most extension programs have had an auspicious beginning.

In the 1850's -- at the height of the Industrial Revolution -- university education was not widely available to many Americans, and there was a growing demand for agricultural and technical education for the working industrial class.

In response, federal and state legislatures across the country funded so called cooperative extension education services, mostly served by the land-grant colleges also established about the same time. Soon thereafter the extension arms of public universities began offering classes on irrigation and water consumption, climate conditions, land conservation, and agricultural economics.

Community development, economic growth and generally, practical skills which had relevance to peoples daily lives soon followed.

Today, the Colleges of Extended Studies are as relevant as ever.

Last year SDSU launched a new certificate program in Digital Media, "targeted to working professionals within the fields of Journalism, public relations, advertising and multimedia content production."

This certificate program will give people the skills to use the web -- blog, Twitter, and combine audio, video and text -- to continue their essential communication mission... a vibrant democratic society vitally dependent on journalists and media professionals to show us the way forward.

At UCSD, a certificate program called Art and The Creative Process pioneers another vital area: providing human skills to navigate the new knowledge based economy in which creativity and innovation are -- and will be for the foreseeable future -- the benchmarks of the most successful individuals and enterprises.

These are but two of the extension programs available in the San Diego region open to the general public, at times and places convenient to working professionals, retired persons, or stay-at-home mothers. Other universities are having the same experience.

The folks who manage the extension programs have their finger on the pulse, very much want to provide skills relevant to peoples daily lives, and for the most part, are reconnecting our universities to the communities they serve.

Some time ago Graham Spinier, president of Penn State University observed: "Changes in technology, demographics, competition, and legislative expectations are all coming together to alter the way higher education operates."

His answer: Engagement.

Relevancy, he said, means engaging the whole community, really blurring the lines between the university and the community by integrating teaching, research and public service activities.
Only by compelling such integration, he argued, can the university harness the collective excellence of all the colleges, aligned with the extension mission, and genuinely reach out to communities:

For too long, these three spheres of activity have been carried out independently and autonomously, with little regard for how they can inform and invigorate each other. For too long, the notion of public service by our institutions has not received proper acknowledgment as a critical component of higher education.

"Universities... are not impacting society, as we should" Spinier said. 'Without impacting society in measurable ways, we can hardly expect that same society to value our role and sustain us."

Universities need look no further for some good ideas about reforming itself.