Editorial: The Extension Business

Becky O'Malley
Tuesday February 03, 2004

Checking on UC Extension’s recent decision to shut down its world-renowned English Language Program was a discouraging exercise. While our reporter asked ELP faculty for their views on what hit them, I called looking for an official explanation and got more than I bargained for. I reached one of UC’s ubiquitous PR people, who offered to fax me part of Extension’s Strategic Plan (Capitalization is sic throughout, and they use a lot of it). It was headlined Ensure Program Quality. When I read the second sentence, I knew we were in trouble: “ …Extension will institutionalize the process of curricular review according to the criteria of Berkeley quality that was developed during the planning process.” ELP instructors could tell the author that criteria takes a plural verb.  

And it got worse. It seemed to be a seven-page excerpt from a parody of the business self-help books sold in airports when I was a business traveler in the ‘80s. It was chock full of sententious and meaningless slogans obviously derived from Powerpoint presentations: “meaningful and engaging learning experiences offered in high-quality facilities or using best practice program formats”; “Organizational Analysis of Learner Feedback”; “…seize entrepreneurial opportunities”…. 

The key mantra seemed to be: “Ensure that Extension’s Programs are Berkeley Quality and Berkeley Appropriate.” It was frequently repeated, abbreviated as “BQ/BA” and defined thus: “Extension will continuously review our programs for their fit with criteria developed during the strategic planning process to clarify the characteristics campus stakeholders identified as ‘distinctively Berkeley’.” That’s one I recognize, as an occasional unwilling consumer of trashy ‘80s business magazines like Inc. when my plane offered no other reading matter. It’s primitive branding strategy, albeit much less sophisticated than the way they do it in successful businesses these days.  

When I started asking the PR lady pointed questions, she, much to my surprise, offered to put the extension dean on the phone. The dean, who came here a year and a half ago from Nebraska, was confident that he and his staff know what’s “Berkeley Appropriate.” 

So why did they decide to axe the English Language Program? He said that the decision was “driven by the strategic planning process” and that the program didn’t match up with the characteristics in the Strategic Plan, which was developed by a Fourth Street consulting firm (whose website shows that their major experience to date has been in city planning.) He claimed that ELP didn’t have the appropriate connection with the UC campus and was not using campus faculty. I told him that this surprised me, since I happen to know several distinguished linguistic department faculty members who lecture in the program. Oh, he said, they only do it randomly. 

He emphasized that the decision was absolutely not a cost decision, that the ELP’s revenues cover its costs. But he said that when the program started it was unique, and now there are many “providers” in the Bay Area. Since I still couldn’t relate what he was telling me to what I knew about the excellent international reputation of ELP, I asked if I could get a copy of the whole Strategic Plan. Oh no, he said, “the Strategic Plan is a confidential document that we don’t share.” “Remember,” he went on, “we are a business, in competition with other providers in the area”. 

Ah. That explains it all. In the old days, UC Extension used to be an educational institution, but in the brave new world of the 2lst Century it’s a business. I asked if I could see their Strategic Plan if I made a formal request under the California Public Records Act . He said no, because it’s a self-supporting business, not a state agency. I asked if UC Extension employees still got state paychecks. At that point he said that any further questions would have to be directed to “the person I report to,” UC Berkeley Provost Paul Gray.  

Without a scorecard, it’s harder and harder to tell the difference between universities and the corporations they’re slavishly trying to imitate. And that’s too bad. 

Becky O’Malley is executive editor of the Daily Planet.