The faculty office is the third rail of university facilities planning. It is heresy to say that all faculty members do not need a private office. Parking is the only aspect of campus life that’s more contentious.
Truth is all faculty members do not need private offices, but not all faculty work can be done in open office environments. There’s the rub.
Many will believe this to be heresy, just as did most who commented on Lawrence Biemiller’s article “Do All Faculty Members Really Need Private Offices” [Chronicle of Higher Education, July 30, 2010]. He speculated on the advantages of open offices, and some of the comments called the writer’s intelligence into question and others attacked institutional “bean counters” for daring to challenge the hereditary rights of the faculty.
Most of the writers seemed to be from traditional institutions where tenure is still relatively common. Many arguments invoked status rather than function as a rationale for the private office.
However, those who taught at lesser institutions where shared office space is the norm, saw well-equipped cube farms with collaboration zones and lots of small conference rooms to be a step up from their typically crowded and poorly equipped office areas. They just didn’t think their institutions would ever provide that level of support.
I had intended to write a short riff about the quaint anachronism of the private faculty office. Instead, I have come to defend the faculty office, but on different grounds than most faculty members might use. The value at stake is not the ownership of office space, it is appropriate support for faculty members. The grounds to defend are accommodation rather than ownership, function rather than status.
Accommodation rather than ownership Most academic space guidelines have been handed down to us from the mid 20th century. These were written at a time when almost all faculty members were full-time and tenure was very common. These policies also predate even the most rudimentary email. As a result we have a set of metrics that are far removed from the world they were intended to inform.
Rather than relying on these antiquated guidelines, facilities planners generally benchmark space needs to a set of aspirational peer institutions when developing new facility space programs. The typical result justifies more floor area in all use categories. Over the years the standard new faculty office has increased from 100-120 square feet to more than 150 square feet.
For some time the rationale for increased office size involved more and larger equipment. This is rapidly vanishing with mobile devices and networked capabilities. As each of these justifications has fallen away, the reasons for bigger offices have been reduced to storage space for books and space for confidential matters, such as personnel discussions, secure research and student meetings. At the same time the pace of life has accelerated to the point that most faculty members crave a few moments of personal silence in their campus life.
The activity of accommodating confidential matters, and even providing a modicum of quiet time is one thing, allocating, granting effective ownership of space for the 8760 hours of a year, year after year is another matter.
It is here that we should face the reality of actual use. Most facilities managers have a good sense of how seldom faculty offices are occupied, but they seldom have an opportunity to use this information. At one midwestern university, the facilities group invested in the control systems to turn off lights and air conditioning when offices were not occupied. The manufacturers’ literature estimated that they would recover the costs in about three years. The offices were so lightly used that it took only a year to recoup the cost of the additional controls through energy savings.
This is an example of how much patterns of office use have changed since the mid-20th century, not of how irresponsible faculty members are in shirking their responsibilities. Faculty members are not factory workers with a set standard place of activity every day. The productivity and responsibilities of knowledge workers, faculty members are perfect examples, have evolved beyond the functionality of a traditional office.
Function rather than Status Once as a university architect I was working with a faculty of economists and political scientists on the issue of assignment of faculty offices in an existing building. The offices ranged significantly in size. For some time economists argued that offices should be assigned according to the size of the faculty member, but political scientists won the day with a formulas based on faculty status and length of service. In no case, did the discussion address function.
The conversation might go differently today. Status would most surely pay a role, but so too would function. The path to better faculty officing surely goes through the question, “What do you need to do?”, rather than “Who are you?”
End of Part 1 In the face of evolving pedagogy and business models, it will be necessary to rethink and redesign faculty office environments to better accommodate a faculty that is more mobile, more digitally active, and less sedentary than the current physical models support.
If campuses have a future, it lies in better outcomes, and support for the faculty through functionality and accommodation. Trying to stick with the earlier patterns of space allocation and status will only lead to ever higher costs, without making any contribution to improved outcomes. Some institutions can afford this sort of extravagance. Most cannot. Those in the latter category who move more quickly to provide more effective faculty office configurations will have a competitive advantage. Students and faculty in the early 21st century will recognize such distinctions.
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