Ethics of Campus Planning

Campus PlanningWhen the emperor is naked do you have an ethical responsibility to recommend clothing? The ethical choices of the campus planner are rarely this stark, but the stakes are rising in higher education campus planning.

As a consultant or an employee, the campus planner balances aspirations and limitations, hopes and realities. Not long ago the only question about a department’s long-hoped-for project was when it would be funded.  In that time, when the future was rosy, it was easy to say, “Yes. We will put it in the plan.” Including the fictional project in the master plan carried no risk and was without cost. In this time of fiscal limitations, demographic shifts and technological dislocations, saying “no” may be the only ethical option.Doing otherwise continues the fiction and fails the ancient Hippocratic test to “either help or do no harm.” Knowing the difference between help and harm is central to the campus planners’ responsibilities and the development of professional judgment through experience.

Idealism and Pragmatism – Campus planners occupy the bright line between idealism and pragmatism. In practice we strive for the best future outcome and settle for the possible. It is not the same as calling balls and strikes because planners are participants. Therein lie the dilemmas of campus planning practice, inside or outside of the institution.

The planning and design professionals and their colleagues in the plant operations see these conditions regularly, but they are rarely couched in the terms of a test. They come, rather, in the normal flow of day-to-day discussions about the adequacy of parking when the real issue is transportation; deferred maintenance when the real issue is having excess building area; or finding more faculty office space when the existing space is under-utilized.

Challenges – come in other forms. Here are three of dozens I have seen this year.

  • Long tenured professors insist on shaping the future of the campus to match an antiquated and long obsolete view of undergraduate education.
  • Board members force money to be spent on pet projects rather than areas that would benefit students.
  • Leadership doesn’t recognize the link between the quality of teaching environments and economic sustainability

In these and similar situations, I often find campus planners engaging in quiet finger pointing. It is appropriate to recognize particular individuals or systemic circumstances that prevent an alternative outcome. Yet without some form of intervention, some alternative course, the patterns will be repeated. There will be only the most pragmatic outcomes: obsolescence will be perpetuated, vanity will be honored and mission critical investments will not be made.

Waiting for Someone – Campus planners are always waiting for someone or something else.  Perhaps rescue will come from the leadership of the president, vice-president, provost, dean or department chair.  More often than not, leadership doesn’t come because of administrative churn, lack of interest and other higher priorities.   Often enough the campus planner faces an ethical dilemma, moving without explicit authority or standing in place. To act exposes the planner to criticism, while the negative consequences of inaction may not be realized for a decade.

Ethical Standards – We might hope that the engineering and architectural professions would offer some guidance here but we would be disappointed. The American Institute of Architects and National Society of Professional Engineers Codes of Ethics pledge concern for public health, safety and welfare, but are largely limited to business matters such as conflicts of interest and dishonesty.

The American Institute of Certified Planners Code is helpful. It acknowledges the planner’s “primary obligation to serve the public interest” (rather than clients or employers) and to “have special concern for the long-range consequences of present actions” while paying “attention to the interrelatedness of decisions.”

None of this specifies the conditions under which an individual would need to jeopardize her employment, but it sets up a test that will always require thought for someone striving to do more than practice good business ethics. This is a higher standard, and today’s circumstances require this higher standard of care. To do less is to jeopardize the viability of one’s institution.

A frequent writer on professional ethics, Thomas Fisher, former Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, has observed:

Colleges and universities have become increasingly dependent upon wealthy donors in order to make up for such things as declining state support, dwindling grant amounts, or depressed endowment returns … virtually every North American campus has signs of donor largesse in the form of everything from named buildings to named bricks. Call it a kind of high-priced graffiti.

Such graffiti is an outward expression of a bigger problem; the failure to invest in more than bricks and mortar. The dynamics of donor funding, when available, and the legacy of 50 years of “bigger is better” mentality, has set up conditions that are increasingly difficult for campus planners. In the face of insurmountable odds and absent administrative support why not live to fight another day? Pragmatism wins. After all, it’s just a job.

See something? Say something – The planner as an active participant in the creation of campus future is also in the best position to see the whole field. Everyone else is focused on his or her real full-time job. The other members of the campus leadership see only their piece of the action and rarely understand the relationships and dependencies. You have a responsibility and ability that no one else has. You must look for the “long-range consequences of present actions” and pay “attention to the interrelatedness of decisions. That’s in your job description.

If you see obsolete ideas promoted by authority of repetition rather than current best practices; wasteful policies; or inattention to critical issues, say something. That is the ethical thing to do. How serious does the fiction need to be for any of us to say, “Enough”?

Learning how to say it takes experience and demands the best professional judgment. Start practicing.

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