Student Community: Verbs not Nouns

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.  This is a world of verbs, not nouns.Following a summit meeting at the University of Wisconsin under the auspices of the Association of College Unions International, SCUP and others, Loren Rullman and Jan van der Kieboom authored an exceptional report.  It connects the dots between research on student success and engagement and the physical campus and the formation of community.

If you care about the future of the physical campus, review this work.  Even now, still early in the process of higher education’s digital transformation, we can see the coming fragmentation of the “college experience” as it becomes more expensive, more asynchronous and more customized to individual student’s investment decisions.

Summit findings challenge a host of traditional understandings.  For example:  “TYPOLOGY. Existing building type mental models (e.g., library, recreation center) are helpful for understanding but are also laden with boundaries to thinking beyond conventional functionality and use patterns.”

The digital transformation now gaining momentum is a direct challenge to the conventional typologies.  Thinking of the “Student Union/Center” as a discrete place denies the fluid and ad hoc nature of students (and faculty) functional needs and use patterns.

We need only consider time – the most precious commodity in the lives of our students (undergraduate and graduate) and faculty (tenure track and adjunct).  Time has real value to all of those on campus.  Typically well more than 50% of students have jobs for more than 10 hours a week.  Some have other demands.  Faculty time management is no less challenged.

When we think of the campus as a noun – a collection of places – we limit our understanding of both personal functional needs and community formation.  This is not to say that student unions and libraries are entirely obsolete.  Print and digital information management still has a need for specialized physical space, just as does the weight machine and on-campus lunch rush.

We can still use the conventional nouns, but this is a time better served by thinking in verbs.  We may not need bigger unions or centers even as head counts grow.  What may be more appropriate is planning to support and facilitate studying, dining, meeting and the life of the students and faculty.

Until quite recently, responses to these needs were located in discrete places.  This just won’t work anymore.  No one has the time or lack of urgency to restrict their studying, dining or meeting until they arrive at the designated location for that activity.

Thus, for every expectation of the campus including community formation, the conversation needs to move to verbs rather than nouns:  what students need to do, rather than what label to put on the place.

This terrain of changing expectations will challenge every conventional notion of place-making, facilities management and capital planning.  This is good news for those comfortable with rethinking traditional practice and dissolving silo walls.  It is bad news for those who are invested in maintaining silo walls and a status quo that is not centered on the needs of students and the faculty.  I know where student (customer) sentiment lies.

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