The Question of the Continued Relevance of the American College Campus

By Charles Warner Oakley©

Upon reading a recent piece entitled Campus Forever? by Michael Haggans in his blogCampus Matters, which discusses the future of the college campus and the question of its continuing relevance, I was thrown into a reverie of memories of and emotions about the phenomenon of campus as I considered the importance in my life of this environmental phenomenon. The blog article Campus Forever? had posed the question “Will your college campus be around forever?” to several different college alumni.  Being understood that, in this human world,  forever is probably not achievable, to me the question becomes: “Can any particular campus last a very long time into the future?” This makes me want to take a look at the past for some guidance on the possibilities. In considering the continuing existence of any particular college campus – as a college campus – the continued existence of the institutions themselves is obviously a threshold issue.

Universities historically long lived – Collectively universities have historically been singularly long lived. At the Association of University Architects annual conference in 1989 held at University of California, San Diego, Campus Architect Boone Hellmann featured on the program an UCSD historian who spoke eloquently about the cultural history of universities. In his talk this fellow gave several impressive statistics about the longevity of colleges as institutions, one example of which I generally remember: Of the 14 institutions in the world extant in the 13th century that are still operating under their original charters, 12 are universities. (University of Bologna founded in 1088 is generally conceded to be the first.  For this comparison Oxford’s charter is assumed to be the papal bull of 1264 although instruction there started much earlier. Cambridge, an off-shoot of the 1209 Oxford executions, was chartered in 1231. Salamanca in 1218, etc.) The other two institutions were Parliament of the Isle of Mann and something else which I forget, but not for example the Roman Catholic Church due to the Avignon popes, as I remember. Most political entities that have morphed over the centuries to be essentially different institutions, operating under different charters, from what they were in the 1200s: France; England; Ottoman Empire – you name it.

Another example of university longevity given was for pre-revolutionary institutions in America, the statistics for which I forget but the support, for the idea that at least some universities have in the past been impressively long lived entities, was clear. Indeed, their remarkable persistence suggests that universities might usefully be considered as in some ways a unique type of human organizations and therefore perhaps not to be analyzed and evaluated in quite the same way as, for example, commercial corporations on the one hand or public/governmental organizations on the other, suggesting as well that leaders of these institutions are well served to take a very long view of their managerial charge. I think it is, therefore, fair to say that universities have proven themselves to be potentially long lasting institutions. Of course, I am well aware – as my investment firm constantly reminds me – past performance is no guarantee of future trends.

Campus: an American invention – American colleges and universities, while sharing many characteristics of their long lived European brethren, nevertheless have several distinguishing characteristics, two of which are pertinent to our discussion on the continuing life of any particular campus. First of all, as Paul Veneble Turner makes clear in his classic book Campus: An American Planning Tradition, the whole concept of “campus” was an American invention. (The lawn in front of Nassau Hall at Princeton was the first use of the term as applied to college geography.) The urban universities of the Old World did not primarily define themselves as geographically self-contained entities but rather as component pieces within larger urban arrays. While certainly many of the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, for example, are imageable, these universities are organically interwoven into their host cities: there is no separately identifiable campus, as such.  The University of Paris for centuries has been manifested through ever changing rental spaces with dedicated university buildings historically playing a smaller role in the totality of the instructional, residential and administrative space needs for that institution’s being: sort of like University of Phoenix, only in just one city.

The rural American campus – Due possibly in response to the colonial and post-revolutionary anti-urban cultural bias in America and the dispersed nature of the population, this country founded most of its fledgling institutions of higher education in the countryside – often rural countryside. Two clear examples of this uniquely American impulse are the founding of Harvard and of Dartmouth. The history leading up to Harvard’s start are summarized by these dates:

1620 – The Pilgrims show up at Plymouth Rock

1630 – John Winthrop and his Puritans arrive 1632 – Boston founded

1636 – Harvard founded

1642 – Harvard starts instruction, across the Charles River from corrupt urban Boston, in rural Cambridge. Clearly, “urban” is relative.

Dartmouth College started instruction in 1768 in Hanover, New Hampshire (chartered in 1769) in what was then crushingly the frontier, as in “clear the forest” frontier. In 1757, a mere eleven years earlier, a large group of seriously pissed off Native Americans had massacred 100 British men, women and children outside of Fort William Henry at Lake George, only about 80 miles southwest of Hanover. The college motto – vox clamantis in deserto (“a voice crying in the wilderness”) – was a heart felt sentiment for early movers and shakers at this rural institution, founded originally in part to educate Native Americans, a promise not truly realized in any numbers until the latter part of the 20th century.

For a host of reasons, the bias towards this early-set pattern of locating colleges and universities in rural sites has continued to this day –  actual acreage necessary for the American concept of a campus being a significant contributor.  In the 1990s I was tangentially involved with the site selection for the new tenth campus for the University of California. While the rational educational, demographic and economic choice for this major undertaking was clearly in the immediate Fresno environs, the choice eventually fell to a rural site outside the agricultural town of Merced. While there were no doubt good and just reasons for this choice (and certainly political reasons), it was clearly easier for the general society to agree to this historically accepted location type rather than the foreign feeling choice of  placing a new university into an urban setting.

The remote setting would appear to be a major catalyst for American universities to be conceived of as largely self-contained physical entities, thus engendering our present concept of campus. The ex-urban state made the provision of institutionally owned student residences a logical and often necessary extension of the organizations’ activities, and eventually American universities’ administrators would assume leadership in the areas of social, cultural and recreational activities, aspects of the university that would have seemed quite foreign to the students who banded together to create the University of Bologna in the 11th century.

Urban campuses – Of course there are several examples of early and continuing universities founded and growing within American cities.  The University of Pennsylvania comes immediately to mind.  Chartered around 1750, Penn was always within the city limits of Philadelphia, first near the Delaware River, what is now the eastern edge of the city, at 4th Street.  In 1829 Penn moved west to 12th Street and finally in 1872 to west Philadelphia, where it resides today.

However, it is very interesting to see how these American urban universities have morphed over time to meet our national expectation for the experience of higher education, with an identifiable campus being a powerful component. Penn again is a good example of the evolution of ‘campus’ even within dense urban areas.  When my father attended Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1930s the street grid of Philadelphia still continued uninterrupted in and around the buildings that made up the physical actuality of Penn.  Woodland Avenue and its associated street car famously cut diagonally through the contiguous University grounds. By the time I went to Penn’s architecture school in the 1970s, my father had a hard time recognizing exactly where he was as the campus had changed to such a degree.  The perimeter of the property that constituted the University was by 1970 very well defined as a separation from the city grid, with the public thoroughfares formerly cutting through the campus now open plazas, lawns, building sites or sunken roads bridged over: Locust Street became Locust Walk, 38th Street depressed into a cut roadway, 36th Street and Woodland Avenue disappeared.

It is now sometimes difficult to distinguish between American urban campuses whose settings started out ex-urban and have become urban as their host cities grew around them – for example Harvard or even the much younger UCLA – and those that have wrestled a sense of campus from an existing urban pattern such as Penn or the University of Southern California.  But the very strong drive to create and maintain a clear sense of campus, even at formerly urban universities, has been consistently demonstrated.  Other urban universities such as Johns Hopkins, after starting as integrated within the existing urban fabric, just packed up and left for the suburbs. (In the 1950s as the societal milieu in west Philadelphia deteriorated,  Penn considered an offer of land in Valley Forge, tendered with the condition that they pack up and leave Philadelphia.  Fortunately the institution stayed and, after some abortive attempts to deal with their urban condition in the 1960s and 70s, became a significant catalyst for a remarkable transformation of the extended university neighborhood in west Philadelphia in 1990s and early 21st century.)

Proliferation of small colleges and universities – In addition to the rural setting leading to the creation of a geographically separate campus, a second distinguishing characteristic of the American manifestations of higher education relative to both Old World antecedents and institutional longevity is the relatively small size and large number of colleges and universities founded here.  In A History of American Higher Education John R. Thelin observes that by 1860 there were 241 degree granting institutions in America, while in the whole of England “…only … Oxford, Cambridge, and the University of London, had charters and the power to grant academic degrees.”  Thelin also points out that by that same date more than 40 institutions of higher learning had come and gone from the American scene. Therefore more than 130 years ago there were quite a few alumni whose campuses had not made it to “forever”.

Campus and institutional longevity – So the upside of the “campus forever” question is that universities tend to be long lived institutions. The downside is that, in America – the home and inventor of the campus concept – while some universities have been around for a long time, there is a very definite history of many failures in the field. The capital and maintenance costs of owning and running a college campus are essentially fixed costs that are not very flexible if changes in economics or society require significant expansion or contraction of the institution. This fixed cost burden has the potential to be a weakness in the long term health of alma mater. I think the on-going clouded fate of Antioch College is an excellent example: apparently the capital demands of an aging physical plant directly led to the temporary closing of the residential undergraduate campus entity, while the for-profit non-dimensional continuing education component continued on in a vital way. It would appear that the physical campus deterioration flowed from a weakened financial position brought on by a toxic combination of narrow-mindedly radical social interpretations on campus driving off more moderate students, faculty and potential contributors and a leadership level focused on the extended Antioch University ventures. Interestingly, the nascent revival of Antioch College has been led by alumni who, along other necessary efforts, have provided sweat equity in refurbishing their campus so that it can reassert itself and its special role in American higher education. Here is a great case of the campus being both a weakness and ultimately a strength of the institution.

The relative inflexibility of  a campus has other potential liabilities for such institutions. One good example of that is the campus related fate the prep schools my sister and I attended: Northfield School for Girls and Mount Hermon School for Boys.  While not colleges, physically the campuses of these two schools look(ed) and act(ed) like college campuses. These two formerly separate but jointly owned schools were five miles apart on opposite sides of the Connecticut River in northwestern Massachusetts. Founded respectively in 1879 and 1881, they each sat on several hundred acres of land. These campuses had buildings from Richardsonian Romanesque through modern and even some post-modern. There were about 500 students at each school and, being truly rural, the campuses included faculty residences, power plants and all the accoutrements of a small New England college or town. But times changed and in the world of prep schools, single sex education was out and co-ed was in. No self-respecting preppy in 1980 wanted to go to a single sex school and the Board of Trustees of Northfield and Mount Hermon merged the schools.  For a while the combined school, now titled Northfield Mount Hermon, operated on the two campus five miles apart, but the logistics of this separation made the enterprise untenable and eventually the school consolidated on the former Mount Hermon campus.

Physically, the campuses were similar, based on essentially Olmstedian planning principles, with the Mount Hermon campus a bit more formal but the Northfield campus generally perceived to have better buildings and a more pleasing artistic expression. Nevertheless, my sister’s campus did not make the turn into the 21st century. Although somewhat reconciled to the consolidated and moved campus condition, this evil twist of fate still rankles her. The social environment changed, leaving the quite beautiful and institutionally successful Northfield campus unoccupied.

The environment will change. Some colleges will cease to exist, even as 40 or so did before 1860. An important question remains: how much should or can an institution change with the environment and still remain true to its founding mission? Similar kinds of questions have been and will be grappled with by college and university boards in an effort to keep their institutions relevant.  As co-education was one of the burning questions of the later 20th century for many institutions, so other social, demographic and technological changes are presently pounding down on American universities.

Campus characteristics of continuing relevance – A key question for this discussion would seem to be, does the college campus have innate virtues that recommend this particular living, studying and working arrangement for continuing relevance? I feel strongly that campuses do indeed contain such virtues and by understanding and building on the primary virtues of campus, residential American universities will be able to continue to play the stunningly important role in national and world society they have in the past.

For me there are two overarching reasons for expecting the continuing relevance of the college campus: (1) physical separation from society and (2) creation of an imageable place. Together these aspects of campus can create distinct mental and physical environments that combine to mutually reinforce the effectiveness of the institution.

Physical Separation for unique mental environment – Physical separation intensifies the college experience, useful and perhaps necessary for a real attitude adjustment, a key justification for college itself. While there are no doubt more efficient ways to simply acquire skills that are economically useful, the residential college is certainly a very effective tool for young adults to learn necessary modes of thinking. The college/campus nexus – particularly in the present day – does not primarily exist to train people how to do specific tasks but is rather a powerful means for shaping or reshaping modes of thinking.

All education is a form of brainwashing. Perhaps as a description of formal higher education, both undergraduate and graduate, one might more neutrally use the terms “shaping” or “forming”. Nevertheless, a college education is, or ought to be, about mental growth and development, intellectual, social and emotional. The ethos of the university – learning how to think for one’s self; learning how to effectively communicate one’s thoughts; searching for truth and meaning; building on the wisdom of the past; creating new knowledge – is not, by and large, the general ethos of day to day society and is noticeably better served by some separation. The unconstrained search for and free exchange of ideas, combined with a healthy skepticism as well as a respect for traditions, has historically managed to keep colleges vital.

The separately identifiable campus increases the effectiveness of this mental forming by placing all the community’s members physically proximate to one another and away from others who do not share these values: family, former friends, etc. Woodrow Wilson, when president of Princeton, said: “The use of the university is to make young men as unlike their fathers as possible.”  In this regard the relatively recent development of “helicopter” parents is an extremely unwelcome development, potentially undermining one of the major advantages of campus.

Creation of Place – We all live in a physical environment, be it memorable or boring, familiar or foreign, delightful or hateful.  Numerous studies show that the physical environment has powerful impacts on one’s mental condition, capabilities and effectiveness. The creation of an imageable place reinforces the concept of the college as an institution, as an entity. In the best of circumstances the campus becomes the center, though not the circumference, of that institution. The campus, when effectively developed and maintained, reinforces each community member’s existential sense of being, allowing one to sense, “I am here, in this place, and I understand how it relates in a perceivable way to other places. I am in college. This is how I identify myself and this is what I am primarily about.”

This intensifying of the act of growing mentally – of learning in the college setting – ideally makes the experience of campus a potentially deeply emotional one that can support both the immediate task at hand as defined by the course of work and ultimate graduation as well as underpin the moral resolve to maintain the ethos of open-minded learning and teaching as experienced during these intense formative days. Of course, not every institution, campus, professor or student meets, keeps or responds to the theoretical standards assumed in the ideal condition, but the potential is there within the campus setting.

The campus makes the experience of college factual, grounded. It is simultaneously an individual and a group experience.  Studies show over and over again that students (and faculty) learn as much from each other as from the specific instruction or the formal structured order of studies. It is the combination of the interaction and the setting in which that interaction happens that combine powerfully to shape the growth of each participant’s mental construct. The college campus will remain relevant to the degree that the institutions thus structured recognize the unique strengths and contributions of the campus as a separate, existentially identifiable  place, and  nurture those aspects of the campus condition.

Campus as Community – The combination of the mental separation and the physical location, in the best of circumstances, is a rich mixing ground for the creation of community, providing its fortunate members a sense of belonging to something great, something more noble, longer lived, than themselves. Robert Frost famously said: “Don’t join too many gangs. Join few if any. Join the United States and join the family, but not much in between unless a college.”

This sense of belonging is not simply a function of the anxiously awaited acceptance letter but rather is won over an often intense typically (but not necessarily) four years of undergraduate effort, but not everyone who attends joins the community. Given its potential for this sense of community, it is not surprising that the American college campus as a development type is one of the few successes in American town planning. A form of the often sought after but elusive utopian community is alive and well in hundreds of college campuses across the nation. This is a community created for a purpose, generally governed as a kind of quasi-democratic autocracy, and attempting to value intelligence above all else. Not a bad formula for community.

The symbolism of the typical college central open area – a village green – seems totally appropriate for an American community: a series of individual buildings, often of different styles but usually deferential to one another, surround and define the central unity of the institution. This is the pattern of Harvard Yard, the Dartmouth Green, Royce-Powell Quad at UCLA, even the authoritative U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis. The early central core at UNC Chapel Hill, University of South Carolina, and a host of others follow this pattern. The glorious example of Jefferson’s University of Virginia with each professor’s house being different from the others and individually expressed, combined with ranges defining the Lawn, emphatically speaks about the individual as individual and the simultaneous commitment to a common society. In the 21st century the newly created University of California, Merced followed this general pattern by starting with four building forms surrounding the central unifying open space.

Ideally the college campus will continue to be a powerful example of and symbol for one possible type of a civil society. The principal product – education – is righteous; the vision, long term. Hopefully the receptive student goes out into the world with not only the specific knowledge acquired in the course of study but also the visceral experience of having participated in community with its gives and takes, its balance of individual and group expressions.  To maintain this aspired ideal state, colleges and their campuses will of necessity continue to evolve as the surrounding society evolves, and the campus should specifically lead the way in this evolution towards an ever greater civility.

I believe that the college campus will continue to be viable and dynamic as long as the virtues of this particular living, studying and working arrangement are recognized and defended by the institutions, resisting pressure to homogenize with the rest of the surrounding society. As the apostle Paul exhorted the early Christians in Corinth: “Come out from among them and be ye separate,…”

Los Angeles, CA  –  September 2013

Charles Warner Oakley is a graduate of Dartmouth and the University of Pennsylvania.  From 1986 to 2000, he was Campus Architect and Assistant Vice Chancellor for Design and Construction at the University of California – Los Angeles.  During his tenure, he guided the planning of the campus and the design of more than 4.5 million square feet of new building area and renovation of more than 3 million square feet.

“Duke” as his friends and colleagues know him, is a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects and an emeritus member of the Association of University Architects. 

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.