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JUNE 5, 2017 - VOL. 52 No. 9

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University Center

Craig Johnson, Ed.D. became the Executive Director of University Center in April of 2014.


Tell us a little about the history and mission of University Center.

The original center started up in 1992 at a downtown location in Sioux Falls and UC moved to its current site near I-29 and 60th Street North in 2009. The primary mission since its inception has been to deliver courses and programs from the state's public universities to allow place-bound residents to complete a baccalaureate or graduate degree. UC enrollment increased significantly through 2010 but it has dropped considerably since that point, largely due to growth in online offerings and the low unemployment rate and strong job market in Sioux Falls. While UC continues to pursue its original mission, we are also developing an array of two-year degrees and certificates designed to meet local workforce needs.

How does University Center measure success?

I think there have been varying answers to that question over the years. UC success is often been measured by enrollment growth and degree completion by students at University Center. Another measure involves tuition revenue for the universities and the number of UC students that transfer to a main campus to complete a degree. Today, we are also focusing on the number of students enrolled at UC who did not plan to continue their education beyond high school, as we have a new BoR system goal to reach a statewide target of 65 percent of South Dakota residents with at least one form of post-high school educational attainment. To do our part, UC is reaching out to individuals who may not presently see college in their future, but they will likely find out that they need education and training beyond high school for a successful long-term career and high quality of life. Our planning discussions with community leaders have also developed a shared view that the long-term prosperity of our communities is dependent on helping every individual achieve their full potential-which means that the number of lives improved by engagement with UC should also be a key measure of our success.

Which of your many responsibilities is your highest priority right now? Why?

The top priority right now is to do everything that I can to ensure the completion of a successful strategic planning and redesign effort for UC, and then develop an action plan to create the necessary changes to position UC as a vital element in the long-term success of the people, employers and communities in the Sioux Falls area. UC played a larger role in higher education in Sioux Falls in the past and we need to recapture that status-not for our own gain, but for the common good of our region and the entire state. The state of South Dakota and the regental system owes it to the residents, employers and communities in the Sioux Falls area to fulfill our responsibilities as the state's public higher education provider. UC must become a key education resource for the long-term prosperity of our region.

The landscape of higher education in Sioux Falls has gone through a lot of change within the past 5 years. How have these changes affected University Center? Are there any current or future disrupting forces that you are keeping your eye on?

In response to that question, I would focus on two national trends that affect the local picture-the continuing growth of online education and growing skepticism about the value of a college degree. While there is a valid role for online education, I fear a marked societal shift to a convenience-based delivery system risks losing the most critical aspects of a college education, such as learning through interactions and relationships with other students and faculty, especially with people from diverse backgrounds, and direct experience with conflict resolution and team-based projects. I also feel that skepticism about the value of a college education is driven in part by a focus on salary earnings immediately after college, which ignores data that clearly show long-term gains in income and quality of life for each level of college education. In addition, people seem to be losing sight that a college education is designed to do more than prepare an individual for the direct demands of a job; we also help students develop critical thinking skills and an ability to see issues from multiple perspectives and develop a range of creative solutions. UC can do its part to respond to these two national trends by serving as an active voice in the community for the value of a college education. We also need to develop more hybrid courses with face-to-face and online elements that give students the best of both worlds, and we need to make sure that all UC courses and programs include real world applications and consider workforce needs in the community.

From your perspective, what does the relationship between University Center and the Sioux Falls community look like?

I am increasingly optimistic about our relationship with the community and I believe it has been strengthened by our current strategic planning process. Our final planning document will be important, but the most significant aspect of our work over the past four months has been the process of bringing community stakeholders together at the planning table to talk through issues, needs, goals and dreams for the people in our communities. Community leaders are helping us redesign UC in a way that focuses on the needs of students and devises more effective ways to bring the resources of the state's universities to Sioux Falls residents and employers.

Talk about the role of post-secondary institutions, and in particular your institution, when it comes to community and workforce development strategies. In a time of low unemployment and a competitive job market, what are some ways that University Center can help in addressing workforce development issues in Sioux Falls and South Dakota?

Especially at a site like UC, we need to be particularly aware of and responsive to workforce issues in our area. We are different from a main campus - UC should be more of an applied professional education site as well as a place where students can begin and in some cases complete a traditional bachelor's degree. We need to identify the needs of local employers today and in the future, and consider what economic and community development experts have in mind for the long-term prosperity of our region. Then we need to devise ways to build partnerships, program offerings and delivery systems that best serve people and employers and combine the university experience with the practicality of a career-driven education. I know these are achievable objectives and our current planning effort is the start of that change initiative for UC.

What are some ways to foster further collaboration between educators and employers?

I think relationships and communication are critical. We need to connect our faculty with employers and community organizations to improve their understanding of how UC courses and programs can better reflect and consider what students will be doing in their jobs and careers. We also need to work more directly with employers to develop and review our program and course offerings to ensure they meet expectations and provide students with an education that will be valued by employers. Our planning effort at UC is developing these connections with the community and our new UC model will provide greater involvement by employers and community leaders in the management and development of UC. If we all keep talking and listening to each other and working together to translate issues and needs into effective actions, we will be successful together.

Do you see any weaknesses today in the structure of post-secondary education in the community of Sioux Falls or even in the state of South Dakota? What is missing? What can we do better?

I think one of the most pressing issues for higher education in South Dakota is the lack of a community college system and a degree of misalignment between the technical institutes and the state's university system. UC must build a stronger partnership with Southeast Tech-we need to develop more programs like the new four-year degree proposed by USD that will allow Southeast Tech graduates to earn a four-year degree from USD without losing the majority of their tech institute credits. We also need to find ways for UC and Southeast Tech to work together as the two public higher education options in Sioux Falls. We have started exploring how we can collaborate in our community outreach activities and help high school students and adults in our community understand the differences in our respective missions and find the most effective way to reach their career and life goals. This objective begins with UC and Southeast Tech working together to educate the public rather than simply competing with each other for the same students, as everyone will win if we work together to help people make the right choices for their career interests and life goals.

Please describe your vision for University Center in its service to students, the community and the state. What will University Center look like in 10 years if you are successful in implementing your vision?

Ten years from now, UC will have developed a strong partnership with Southeast Tech to provide Sioux Falls with a community college function that delivers technical workforce training and university-level workforce education along with a strong transfer program for four-year degree completion.

In addition, UC will have developed a strong working partnership with tenants in the USD Discovery District and with USD's GEAR center to provide courses and programs that prepare students for work in biomedical and biotechnology related fields that will make up a new growing sector in the Sioux Falls economy.

Last, but not least, UC will be the site for an array of undergraduate and graduate programs, especially key professional programs, that will take advantage of the UC location in one of the most dynamic and vibrant cities in the country.

Please share a few specific goals you have for yourself and/or for University Center in the next 6-12 months.

First, we will complete the current strategic planning process by the end of May 2017. Next, we will work with key internal and external stakeholders to convert the strategic plan into actions and outcomes that will redesign and position UC to better meet current and future student needs and community expectations, with a plan in place and steps taken by the end of this summer. In addition, by the fall of 2017, we will begin to modify the delivery and design of our academic offerings to establish stronger connections to the community and workforce and develop the right combination of classroom and virtual education that prepares students for the workplace of today and tomorrow. As we accomplish these objectives, our enrollment will grow. We need to do the right things, in the right way, with the right partners.


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