Challenges and opportunities ahead for Outreach, says Fross

By Daniel J. Fitzgibbons

Seven years after a handful of campus units were grouped together under the banner of University Outreach, the division is reshaping itself to reflect national models for engaging external audiences, says Sharon L. Fross, vice provost for University Outreach and director of Continuing Education.

Speaking to the Faculty Senate on Dec. 16, Fross, who began her duties in September, shared her short- and long-term vision for University Outreach and the challenges facing the division.

In the past, said Fross, outreach was more narrowly defined at the Amherst campus than at other institutions, where the mission typically encompasses continuing education, grant development, public broadcasting, and economic and workforce development. For the campus’s outreach efforts to move forward, she said, “We need to work within the national context.”

The role of Outreach is “to enhance and extend the research, teaching and service mission of the university by engaging external audiences,” she said. “The public expects to be engaged with the public university.”

In fact, Fross noted, Outreach already interacts with more than 225,000 people in state through Continuing Education and online learning, UMass Extension, University Without Walls, WFCR and the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Education Institute.

But outreach activities should extend through every school and college, said Fross, and not be regarded as an “ancillary” program or a drain on resources. “Outreach is essential to the future of the university,” she said. “We need to develop an outreach strategy and match our expertise and scholarship with the needs of the Commonwealth.”

Fross said her division has several challenges to overcome, including organizational development and stable leadership. Since its inception, the division has been led by several interim appointees, while other key posts still need to be filled permanently. Fross said she hopes to have a new Continuing Education director on board by late spring and that she also wants to hire directors of UMass Extension, marketing and communications, and planning and administration.

There is also a need, she said, to align Outreach more closely with schools, colleges and other university offices. Internally, Outreach needs to develop into an organization with a common mission. Fross said Outreach’s financial system is also a challenge. “The tuition, fee and revenue structure is among the most complex I’ve seen.”

According to Fross, Outreach must match public needs with the campus’s expertise, build relationships with external networks and demonstrate the value of external engagement in building research capacity. “A new way of thinking is needed,” she said.

Over the next one to three years, said Fross, she would like to see expanded credit programming and summer school offerings, new partnerships in workforce, economic and community development, coordinated outreach grant development, and more fundraising for activities. Another goal is the creation of a program innovation fund to support the development of new initiatives.

Prior to her appointment last summer, Fross was director of continuing education at Pennsylvania State University for three years.