A century of innovative outreach and engagement

Back to news

By Sue Postema Scheeres


A conversation with the Vice Provost for Outreach and Engagement

Connecting the university’s resources to public needs across Colorado has been part of Continuing Education’s mission since it began as University Extension more than a century ago.

From offering lectures, courses and degree programs across the state to creating outreach centers that became independent colleges and universities, Continuing Education has powerfully influenced the development of higher education and public life in Colorado.

This role continues today under the leadership of Sara Thompson, who in 2015 became the dean of Continuing Education and the vice provost for Outreach and Engagement and Summer Session. She brings more than 20 years of experience building academic programs that meet the needs of students and communities in innovative ways.

Thompson recently sat down and shared the intriguing history of Continuing Education, a division that has been at the forefront of CU Boulder’s public outreach and community engagement efforts.

What does a Vice Provost for Outreach and Engagement do?

First, I want to clarify what we mean by outreach and engagement. CU Boulder defines outreach and engagement “as the ways faculty, staff and students collaborate with external groups in mutually beneficial partnerships that are grounded in scholarship and consistent with our role and mission as a comprehensive, public research university.”

Currently, there are more than 230 programs and initiatives from every college and school that impact 500,000+ Coloradans annually, which is impressive. This work connects university knowledge and resources with the public and private sectors to enrich scholarship, research and creative activity and enhance curriculum, teaching and learning. The goal is to prepare educated, engaged citizens, strengthen democratic values and civic responsibility, address critical societal issues and contribute to the public good.

As the vice provost, I oversee the Office for Outreach and Engagement, where I work closely with office leadership and interact regularly with the programming and communications staff. The office supports and enhances campus outreach efforts in significant ways and provides an accessible point of contact for external groups seeking access to university resources. I’m fortunate to serve as an ambassador of this amazing work.

Can you describe the historical connection between Continuing Education and outreach and engagement?

Continuing Education began as the Department of University Extension in 1912, and, from the beginning, was designed to connect university resources with communities statewide. Extension brought lectures, correspondence courses and even degree programs to cities and towns, to members of the Civilian Conservation Corps, military veterans and prison inmates. The department established outreach centers across the state, which eventually became independent colleges, including CU Denver, UCCS and Colorado Mesa University.

Over the years, the ways we have addressed the changing needs of students and communities has evolved, and in 1970 we became Continuing Education. The university renewed its commitment to funding faculty-led outreach efforts in 1986, and later established an Outreach Committee composed of faculty from various disciplines to rigorously review these grant proposals. In 2001 an outreach coordinator was hired, marking the beginnings of the Office for Outreach and Engagement, and in 2009 the dean of Continuing Education assumed additional responsibilities as what is now the vice provost for Outreach and Engagement.

Around this time it became clear that the campus needed a consistent way of talking about what it meant to engage with communities. In 2010 the Council of Deans adopted our current definition of outreach and engagement, which focuses on how to build partnerships with communities and harness the university’s academic resources to address public issues. This definition serves as the office’s mission and has guided its growth.

So, we have always supported lifelong learning for Coloradans through innovative public outreach. It’s an important part of who we are as CU Buffs.

There are many units in Continuing Education. In what ways do they contribute to university outreach and engagement?

That’s an interesting question. Currently, Continuing Education oversees 18 programs through its different units. Each program and unit responds to a pressing public need by extending the university’s distinctive resources from various departments, colleges and schools.

We offer evening and online courses, degree completion and professional master’s programs (such as the Master of Science in Organizational Leadership) for traditional and nontraditional students. The Office for Outreach and Engagement builds institutional capacity for outreach and engagement by supporting community and campus partners, providing funding, developing networks and more. In addition, Science Discovery‘s K-12 programs spark the curiosity of the next generation of STEM learners while the International English Center prepares students through intensive English language programs.

Together, we’re serving the lifelong learner, providing Coloradans with a variety of meaningful learning opportunities at various touch points along their lives.

The Academic Futures process led to a call for renewed focus on public service and engagement. Given its history, what role do you think Continuing Education could play in responding to this call?

I am so pleased that Academic Futures has highlighted the importance of public outreach and engaged scholarship. Some of the innovations proposed by the Academic Futures report, such as a center for teaching and learning and a focus on online learning, will address the changing needs of our students and communities. Part of our role in this process will be to continue to advocate for scholarly public outreach and community engagement, while representing the needs of nontraditional students and underserved communities in particular.

What do you see as the opportunities for CU Boulder outreach and engagement moving forward?

You know, outreach and engagement work is really part of our DNA as a division, and we are always looking for ways to be innovative in addressing student and community needs. That involves taking the lead in advancing the conversation statewide and nationally about how we do this work.

I’m particularly excited about the possibility of joining the Engagement Scholarship Consortium (ESC), a leading association that brings together academic institutions to build strong university-community partnerships. We’re applying to join ESC as an institutional member before the 2019 conference in Denver. This meeting will offer a great opportunity for CU Boulder faculty, staff and students to share their exemplary outreach and engagement work with a national audience of scholars. If our bid is successful, I will be serving on ESC’s Board of Directors. Joining ESC will allow us to continue the conversation with our peer institutions as we grapple with how we can support the work of engaged scholars on campus and most effectively partner with communities across Colorado and beyond.