Campus Planning at a Breakpoint

Students going upIn the mid-20th century, a Military Industrial Complex developed to maintain the expansion of American military capability. At the same time, a Campus Planning & Building Complex developed to expand American higher education. Both worked well to produce more, and each benefited from an aura of self-fulfilling prophecy.

For American higher education, expansion was a successful strategy. Many states developed university systems and sprouted comprehensive campuses where only small private colleges had existed before. Student capacity and research expenditures grew more than 10 times. Major public institutions grew from flagships to aircraft carriers. Building area increased by more than 20 times. Governors and legislators got used to being photographed in front of buildings, not graduating classes. The Association of Physical Plant Administrators and Society for College and University Planning helped to professionalize the staff positions required to build and maintain the Campus Planning & Building Complex.

Such a system is ill suited for the demographic changes, fiscal limitations and technological innovation now underway. What worked so well for more than fifty years of facilities expansion has left most state systems and their institutions in an unsustainable position – more space than they need and more than they can afford to operate and maintain.  Many private institutions with rising discount rates are depleting their reserves.

Edifice Complex – New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller was said to suffer from an “edifice complex,” but he was not alone. The membership of the Campus Planning & Building Complex grew to include legislators seeking local support, presidents and provosts seeking support from boards, deans and department chairs, and all of the internal and external planning and building professionals striving to maintain the trajectory of growth and expansion.

Standard planning methods were developed to quantify the need for more space. The principal method has been “peer benchmarking” – comparisons to the facilities wealth of aspirational peers. Planning consultants are asked to assess facilities needs and justify them by comparing the size and quality of facilities of those institutions that are more highly rated. The ‘peer benchmarking’ approach to assess facilities can only produce a rationale for more and more space. No institution aspires to be average, much less below average.

All the members of the Campus Planning & Building Complex are invested in maintaining the system and justifying the need for more facilities. As a result most capital facilities programs are little more than politically correct prioritizations of departmental and college wish lists. They have only a tangential relationship to fiscal and technological reality, and too often perpetuate obsolete instructional patterns.

Breakpoint – Few dare to doubt the value and continued existence of the traditional campus, but some are beginning to ask questions about the paradigm of physical growth. On the surface these questions involve seeking consultants willing to recommend reductions and adaptation rather than expansion. More fundamentally these questions challenge assumptions and practices that have guided campus planning since the mid-20th century.

Asking these questions is just a first step in the realignment required as campuses face the reality of changes in three patterns: demographic, fiscal and technological. The evidence of realignment is beginning to appear.  The turmoil surrounding Sweet Briar and the University of Maine are not anomalies.

Consolidation of institutions is underway in the University of System of Georgia. Institutions including the University of Arizona are seeking planning consultants that understand the need to “…optimize the utilization of existing facilities and minimize new facility requirements.” The State University of New York system has acknowledged structural financial deficits that could deplete its reserves in a few years.  Elsewhere, discussions of mergers and absorptions are common. These are just four published examples. These kinds of big and small signs – cracks in the façade – are appearing in all but a few states among institutions public and private.

The Challenge for SCUP and Campus Planners – We are at the trailing edge of six decades of campus facilities expansion. The resulting mix of assets can be a rich foundation on which to rebuild and right-size sustainable institutions, or part of an unsustainable burden that helps to sink the rest.

As long as campus planning methods remain in the traditional frame of continued expansion, the fiscal and environmental burden to institutions will rise. Realignment and adaptation – changing the trajectory – will require different ways of thinking about and justifying facilities. Instead of boasting more area per student, instead of following obsolete patterns, institutions will need to focus on effectiveness. A step in the right direction will be to boast a smaller carbon footprint per credit hour or more effective learning environments.

This is time of existential challenge for many institutions and a challenge of conscience and creativity for the professional and institutional members of the Society for College and University Planning. They and their predecessors have been dramatically successful for 50 years in growing the physical presence of American higher education. The challenges of institutional realignment, consolidation, adaptation and right-sizing in response to demographic, fiscal and technological change will prove to be more difficult.

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5 thoughts on “Campus Planning at a Breakpoint

  1. Good points.

    I’d like to add one more, campus tours. When shopping for a school for my son, he was more interested in the dorms, food plan and “feel” of the place. Not the institution’s reputation nor the job placement statistics. I don’t feel he is alone in that way of judging the potential choices and the recent proliferation of new apartment-like dorms confirms the schools are catering to his bias.

    At those institutions where the focus is on disproportionally on getting the paying students in than getting them started in their chosen career, they risk having graduation rates like many on-line programs.

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  3. Mike,

    Great observations, as usual. I’ll give you another example.

    I’m heavily involved with APPA and their FPI (Facilities Performance Indicators). In preparation for a site visit, I have reviewed one campus’s data compared with a set of peers they identified. One interesting parameter we discussed was their NASF/Student FTE was over 100 NASF/SFTE, about 4 times that of their peers. Their budget per student was out of line also but when compared against their costs per gsf they looked “average”.

    They see this problem in a different way, they have a course scheduling problem. You’d think they wouldn’t have a problem because they have more than enough classroom space. However, the opposite becomes true because departments end up scheduling courses at the same time when students want to take more than one of these courses. So students are prevented from taking a course not due to the availability of space but because all the courses are taught at the same time in the surfeit of space. (I always enjoy it when a physical problem is manifested in an academic area; it starts to make sense to academics.)

    What is the campus considering? Conversion of classroom to office or other spaces. That’s an easy change. Eliminating the space outright is harder but that’s probably what they need to do. The reduced space will increase their flexibility to maintain the campus better and to increase services.

    Of course, all of this may change following the presidential elections if public higher education is mandated “free” along with the other restrictions on non-academic facilities. Let’s keep an eye on this.

  4. Michael – another provocative post, well done. I wonder what graduate school and professional (e.g. SCUP) coursework is offered to educate campus planners and project managers to lead the “change in trajectory” you advocate. Although the need for new buildings will remain, adaptive re-use and cyclical renovation will become a larger part of campus development. Additions are usually accompanied by modifications to the original building. The skills needed to successfully complete these projects are somewhat different than those needed for new buildings. Planning and managing swing space, occupant relocation, and phased construction are some of these skills. Scope definition, budgeting, and scheduling are different and often more complex when existing buildings, enabling projects, and academic calendar constraints are present. The ability to create, maintainin and access digital databases and building, utility and site plans is essential to planning and managing adaptive re-use and renovation projects. Experience may be the best teacher and those with such experience will lead the change in trajectory.

    • Robert – I would like to second 2 of your many excellent points. First, concerning course work – SCUP does has a 3-step Planning Institute that utilizes an Integrated Planning Model that combines academic and organizational planning with traditional campus planning.

      Second, adaptation of the campus. New buildings are easy. Adapting our campuses requires a different set of skills and attitudes. In my campus planning course I try prepare future planners with analytical skills appropriate for a wide range of issues/problems/problems they might encounter…as you observe, experience may well be the best teacher.

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