More Clicks, Different Bricks – 2012

UT.UMNIt is hard to find anyone who thinks his or her own undergraduate campus will cease to be.  It is as if these places will go on forever.

At a recent SCUP conference I asked attendees to tell me why their campus would or would not exist in 2040.  One said their campus would morph into a “multi-purpose innovation/ business/research park”.  All the rest said their campus would survive – at least until 2040.  The reasons fell into four categories:  too big to fail, enough demand, adaptable enough and unique mission.  Can this be right?

Terry Brown of the University of Wisconsin System, knows that higher education is “…faced with an existential choice:  adapt or die.”  Dr. Brown recommends slow, deliberate, incremental transformation and without compromising core values.

I began writing about the physical dimensions of this choice 22 posts ago.  Year-end is a good time to reflect on the major themes that have emerged.The competition and the climate have changed.  State funding continues to decline.  Fewer students can afford a traditional college education.  Many doubt the value of a degree.  Alternative providers and methods are growing in number and improving in capability.  Business models designed to maintaining the status quo are becoming less and less viable.

Digital methods are evolving (and improving) rapidly.  It is still quite early in the development of educational products suited for an asynchronous and placeless experience.  Large, face-to-face, yet anonymous lecture classes underpinning the economics of higher education are becoming more obviously obsolete.

Students need to be at the center of the diagram. The economic advantages of research and intercollegiate athletics are hyperbole.  Across the country there are only a handful of athletic programs that actually make money, and nowhere is the cost of research fully funded by granting agencies and businesses.  In both cases, revenues from undergraduate tuition make up the difference.  Thus, when considering the future of higher education, placing the student at the center of the diagram must be the first step, not an afterthought.

Most institutions have more space than they can afford. They also lack the right space.  Education, technology and business systems have changed significantly since the mid-20th century, when modern systems of facilities utilization were developed.  Thus, the systems intended to measure space needs are antiquated.  Further, space management and strategic facilities decision-making are hamstrung by academic politics.

Revised trajectories for the size and function of the campus are necessaryConstantly expanding the physical real estate of the campus is not sustainable.  Determining a facilities target and functional expectations for a decade from now, and developing the plan to reach that goal are the first steps in bending the curve.  Strategies will vary from selling off underutilized assets to replacing obsolete facilities with new collaborative and working environments.  In some cases, institutions will be best served by renovating existing buildings and being able to vacate vast amounts of leased space that has been draining vital resources from the campus.

The campus is more than a dreamscape. Many including online enthusiasts believe that something magical happens on a campus.  This may be, but magic alone will not sustain these places through the next century.  As the academic experience becomes more fragmented and asynchronous with fewer on-campus hours per student per degree, the formation of campus community is becoming more and more tenuous.  A recent report by Rullman and van der Kieboom argues that a primary function of the physical campus support for community formation.  Unless the campus is designed and maintained with this functional perspective in mind, it will rapidly become nothing more than an empty shell.

The next several years will see a ‘shake out’ as institutions with less viable business models become less able to provide education and the ‘luxuries.’  Are the social experiences, occasionally meaningful interactions with faculty members, and a platform for research the only lasting justifications for the campus?

Terry Brown sees everything at stake in the choice of adapting or dying “…if in adapting we lose who we are, we have not survived.”  Retaining core values and deciding the campus characteristics that must be preserved will be part of meeting this existential challenge.

The sooner each institution makes these choices, the more viable each will be.  I agree with Dr. Brown that “…thoughtful, deliberate, inclusive decision-making is a core value.”  Procrastination in making these choices is not a good strategy.

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2 thoughts on “More Clicks, Different Bricks – 2012

  1. Good points Michael. One more that you have shared seems to fit in here. The education for the first two years is cheaper than for the last two years of UG and also for Grad programs. With more students choosing to get their “general classes” through Community College and online options (plus colleges choosing to raise their graduation rates), the costs increase for those courses which continue to be taught at a college. That further reduces the amount of money available for other items, including buildings.

  2. “The next several years will see a ‘shake out’ as institutions with less viable business models become less able to provide education and the ‘luxuries.’ Are the social experiences, occasionally meaningful interactions with faculty members, and a platform for research the only lasting justifications for the campus?”

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