To Build, or Not to Build

UMN.vert.cropUniversity presidents and provosts are always faced with the choice of staying the course or modifying the trajectory of their institutions.  Due to failing business models, rapidly evolving digital competition and declining public support, the stakes are rising.  Some are asking how they should think about the campus built for the 21st century.

My first draft of recommendations:

  • Build no net additional square feet
  • Upgrade the best; get rid of the rest
  • Manage space and time
  • Measure productivity
  • Right-size the whole
  • Rethink
  • Take sustainable action
  • Make campus matter

Build no net additional square feet.  Start with the assumption that you have enough space.  Critical observers of academic culture can recount story after story of “turf protection” behavior that leads to the retention of obsolete facilities even after appropriate replacements have been provided.  These patterns could be afforded in a resource rich environment.  The environment has changed, but the behavior has not.

Resisting edifice complex is difficult.  There are some facilities – most notably student housing – that are “self-funding” and thus add no fiscal or operational burden to the institution.  The use of the term “self-funding” results in the inevitable gaming of the system.  There are donors who wish to pay for bricks and mortar, but have no interest in kilowatt-hours and building depreciation.  My advice is to adopt a policy of no net additional area as a strategic approach to refocusing institutional priorities, rather than a tactical response to fiscal constraints.

Upgrade the best; get rid of the rest.  All higher education functions, from instruction and research to officing and library, require greater bandwidth and physical flexibility.  Retaining obsolete facilities diverts resources from investments in modernizing the “keeper” buildings, and leads to replacing roofs on buildings that should be torn down.

This is the essence of good stewardship.  It means properly caring for the legacy of each institution that will survive long into this century.  Often this means retaining and preserving the built history of the place – the Lawn and Ranges of the University of Virginia or any campus’s “Old Main” are the prime examples.  Good stewardship also means making hard choices about what legacy can be retained.  Assuming all old buildings are worthy of keeping will make the campus no more viable than the old country houses of England.

Manage space and time.  Re-conceptualize the campus in terms of patterns and intensity of use rather than area per student, faculty member, library volume or research dollar. The carrying cost of the physical environment is 24/7.  Effectiveness and intensity of use needs to be factored into the management picture.  Many patterns of academic facilities use have more to do with traditions of privilege rather than need.  Management for both space and time leads to choices that provide strategic value.

Measure productivity.  Begin to measure the productivity of the institution in terms that recognize the hybridization of higher education.  Institutions with relatively large international and/or online operations have been doing this for decades.  The need to do this is now reaching all the business models of higher education, particularly as “value of the degree” begins to be a transparent metric.

Right-size the whole.  Find those areas where significant adjustments are justified.  Classroom and teaching laboratories usually represent less that a tenth of campus space.  In recent years there has been significant growth in research space and administrative offices.  Research revenues per square foot of assigned area are well documented.  It is extremely rare for space to be reallocated due to poor research performance, but it does happen.

Since officing is often more than 30% of campus space, there are more opportunities than in classrooms.  In the last 20 years, the metric of office space per person has shrunk by half, as work has shifted to a more mobile model.  Much has been made of the inefficiencies of faculty offices, but these represent a very small portion of campus space.  Across the country academic administrative offices are stuck in mid-20th century configurations, while the rest of the world has changed.

Re-think capacity.  Most campuses already have either too much capacity, or too few students.  As more of the activity of higher education moves to digital platforms, this will become more apparent.  Plan to have more capacity (production of “degrees” per unit of building area). Students will be spending less “seat time” per degree. The consequence will be the potential for increased productivity within the existing facility complement. In the typical case, the instructional capacity of the institution will increase by 25% to 33%. Alternatively, the institutions will have more space than their market and business model can support.

Take sustainable action.  Make facilities decisions to reduce the institution’s carbon footprint per credit hour (or other educational equivalent) delivered. However simplistic this may seem, such a metric leads to sound long-term financial investment strategies, denominated by productivity.  Taking action begins by not building unnecessary facilities and continues with reinvesting in the best of existing assets and getting rid of unnecessary and redundant facilities.  Only after these steps are investments in new state-of-the-art carbon neutral facilities justified.

Make campus matter.  With so much of higher education available in digital and largely asynchronous forms, the justification for a campus must derive from something more than “we have always done it this way.”  Even at the most traditional institutions “on-campus time per degree” will decrease. This change in convention will make the support of increasingly limited face-to-face time of strategic value, rather than an assumed byproduct of traditional campus life.

There must be something significantly better about the “live performance” and it needs to be more than “sense of place.”  I believe it is a function of sharing time and place.  Whether in the form of agenda driven or serendipitous conversation, “live” interaction has a bandwidth that exceeds any current digital alternatives.  This is a luxury.  To justify the expense of a campus, it must be exploited to improve the value of the outcome, not simply to increase the price of admission.

What is the 21st century campus?  The fiscal, pedagogical and technological challenges of the next decade will require institutions to support hybrid education, while maintaining the traditional campus values of face-to-face instruction.  Planning for this emerging future will require integration of wide range of institutional concerns from evolving business models to efficient use of capital resources.

What does the physical campus need to be?  Smaller than some might wish, and never so large that it compromise an institution’s mission to serve its students, faculty and community.  The first step is to build no net new square feet.  Not merely a tactically appropriate response to fiscal constraints, it is a strategic necessity to remake the campus for the transition now underway.




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5 thoughts on “To Build, or Not to Build

  1. Absolutely and well said!

    These are the physical/facility manifestations of the comments and recommendations seen in: College (Un)Bound and The Innovative University. There are probably others but these are the most recent books I’ve read about the current and future disruption of the traditional university. We all need to think about where our students (“customers”) will be in 10 – 20 years because that’s how long it could take before we’re able to respond and disrupt the physical side of the ivory tower.

  2. Michael, you are on the right path here.

    One thing I might add is a “blank sheet” exercise. For any institution, they ought to wrestle with how they would create their institution as a brand new entity. Use Capella and U of MN Rochester as examples of new institutions starting without needing to make their first priorities buying land and a constructing a signature edifice.

    With many new buildings having expensive edifices, we are still obsessed with using our building exteriors to send a message – which to me is “bass ackward” the interiors should be where the signature should be put in how functional the space is for the need. Once you make every building a campus asset in the master plan, you thwart the idea of right sizing when needs change.

  3. Michael, this is another SPOT ON post. Yes, there will be exceptions where an institution rightly justifies expansion based on strategic need, but starting at “no net growth” is a GREAT approach. Boards and donors (and students) must be shown what it costs to keep obsolete space, and in some cases will need to decide if “Old Main” has been allowed to decay to the point that it, too, must be added to the “do not resuscitate” list.

    With regard to office space, colleges and universities MUST adopt modern models for space allocation, remote workplaces, etc. Our corporate friends have proven that these models can improve productivity, reduce turnover, and reduce space allocation/cost. Most of us have exhaustively studied classroom utilization rates relative to institutional goals, but have tip-toed around non-teaching/research space and how it contributes to (or hampers) institutional success.

  4. Consider the community link – invite the community to share space in the built environment of the campus. By wedding the two together, the relevance of the campus remains strong, vibrant and anchored to the community in which it serves.

    • Making Campus Matter is the often overlooked component….. and is last here……what does this really mean and how is it translated into teaching methods, facility needs, etc……and are we still looking through a lens that does not fully embrace the future simply because it is unfamiliar to us?

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