Continuing and Professional Education Units—The Academic Entrepreneurial Arm of our Institutions

Several weeks ago ODU celebrated the opening of a new center, the Strome Entrepreneurial Center (for more info, see  In celebration of the new center and the generous gift from an alumnus, there were a number of presentations given about entrepreneurial efforts, and multiple panels featuring entrepreneurs telling their story.  We had quite a range of entrepreneurs, the youngest being a 10th grader who runs a water bottle company, to others who’ve started business in areas such as recreation and catering.

When I think about continuing and professional education units, I see them as our institutions “academic entrepreneurial arm.”  Roger Whitaker, former president of UPCEA, talked about our units as the place where academic content and revenue generation meet.  As I listened to panel members and other speakers share their experiences and observations as entrepreneurs, I was struck by the fact that for me their experiences parallel the experiences I’ve had as a continuing professional educator.  Let me share a few of their observations and how they relate to my own experience in continuing professional education.

“I stumbled through life and found my passion in being an entrepreneur.”

What we’ve found with UPCEA’s management survey through the years is that many of us found ourselves in our field by accident.  That is, at least in my case, I didn’t complete my doctorate in the hopes that I would be a professional continuing educator.  None of us grow up wanting to be continuing educators – we don’t even realize the field exists. But, luckily for me, I began my career in a continuing education unit, and it didn’t take long for me to see that my passion did lie in providing the promise of education to our students through continuing and professional development.  And it is a passion.  One of my favorite things is to see the passion that my colleagues bring to the field.  I’ve often thought that we are on the edge of being evangelical about what we do.

“Many entrepreneurs can develop a business plan; successful entrepreneurs can execute the business plan.”

I’m reminded of the old saw from a past dean of continuing education at UC Berkeley when discussing the administrative structure for continuing education in our institutions: “Many want to jump the claim, but few know how to work the mine.” Like other entrepreneurs, we are caught in that tension of having others on our campus believe that they “know how to work the mine,” but yet in my experience problems happen in the execution.  I saw this at a previous institution when the College of Education was given the green light to run their own CE unit.  Just one year later, we were asked not only to take it back but to quickly return the enrollment numbers to prior levels.  From my perspective, where we face challenges is when our units no longer bring value to the educational experience for faculty and students.  This relates to an earlier blog post about reinvention and being integral.  (

“I was asked to present to my son’s class about my job; after explaining my job to my son he said, ‘Dad, just tell them you’re a cowboy.’” 

This one just killed me because I do find myself at times unable to explain well what I do for a living.  Sometimes, when I’m feeling just a bit ornery, I share the unofficial title I’ve given myself, which is RATS (Ruler of All Time and Space).  When I think about trying to explain our jobs the phrase that comes to me is: “we make dreams come true through the power of education.”  And when the blank stare comes back, just tell them you’re a cowboy, which turns out to be a pretty good image; there are days when I feel I’m on top of old Steamboat ( and simply trying to survive the ride.

“I have more failures than successes that I can share.”

This reminds me of Edison’s quote: “I have not failed, not once.  I’ve discovered ten thousand ways that don’t work.”  Part of being an entrepreneur is a willingness to fail and to learn from that failure, and those of us in continuing professional education do that that very well.  We learn from our mistakes and move on. The difficult part for all of us is that higher education doesn’t have a large tolerance for failure, so the expectation is that every program will be wildly successful. This is why part of our job is to control expectations.

“Words that describe an entrepreneur: fearless, innovative, and disruptive.”

These are three words that also describe professional continuing educators.  There has to be a bit of fearlessness as we venture into areas that our institution may have initially resisted.

We are also the Research and Development arm for the institution in finding new and innovative methods of packaging and delivering content.  I think we’ve all been in meetings where we see things a bit differently than our colleagues across campus.  Not better than, just different.

Finally, I feel I’m doing my job as a “cowboy” if I am being disruptive.  Being that disruptive force is what expands the model of higher education to include new ways of making higher education more accessible and more affordable.  (

The final phrase is “Entrepreneurs have tenacity; you move ahead even though everyone thinks you are crazy.”

Tenacity, the quality or state of being tenacious; tenacious, not easily stopped, very determined to do something.  Now this is the perfect definition of how I see my job.  Because we are often bringing new ideas and new ways to look at providing access, we must be determined and we must continue to call for action.

I’m convinced that successful continuing professional education units ARE the entrepreneurial arm of our institutions.


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