It was standing room only; there were calls for extra chairs. One man made himself comfortable on the floor. “Talk about the obvious irony of this,” Tom Shaver, founder and chief executive officer of Ad Astra Information Systems , said to the group of university administrators and consultants squeezed in for the presentation: “Growing Enrollments in a Fixed Amount of Space.”
“Space utilization” is a buzz-phrase on college campuses, and indeed it's also in the air at the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP) Annual Conference  this week in Montreal. But space utilization, in itself, is not the problem, as Shaver told the SCUP crowd. And solely focusing on average usage rates of existing facilities, he continued, leads universities to ask the wrong questions. He cited, for instance, a university that asked how it could improve utilization of its lightly-used geology labs, despite lagging student interest in rocks. “The answer is, ‘You can’t,’ unless you quadruple interest,” said Shaver, whose company does analytics, consulting and room scheduling. “They were asking the wrong question. If you’re focusing on your academic mission, your strategic mission, you’re not going to ask, ‘How can I quadruple utilization in my geology labs?’ " if the student interest isn’t there.
“Technically, the problem is, ‘I can’t achieve my strategic or academic mission because of my space constraints. How can I get around them?'"
"Getting around the Bottlenecks" could have been the session's subtitle. Presenters stressed a need for individual colleges to identify when, exactly, too many people want to be where, exactly. At what times, in what size or type of room? Are the big lecture halls most coveted at your college, or a certain type of laboratory? What are the sources of bottlenecks (demands on certain classroom technologies, for instance? Technology, Shaver said, is often "at the heart of a space bottleneck").
And, after getting some data, next, the panelists said, universities should come up with plans to ease the pain. (And, on that latter note, department chairs with space to proudly call your own: Watch out. While acknowledging that the politics of reallocating "owned" spaces for general university scheduling purposes are problematic, many here at SCUP don't appreciate classroom hoarding.)
During the session, Patricia Kraigher, systems development coordinator for the University of British Columbia, described that institution's efforts to develop new scheduling guidelines in response to a projected space crunch -- the loss of more than 60 UBC classrooms to renovation or repurposing projects. The guidelines take advantage of a number of strategies to reduce bottlenecks, including moving low-enrollment classes out of big, in-demand rooms and diversifying the times when classrooms are used. Among UBC’s guidelines: All course offerings, where possible, are to adhere to standard times and days (for instance, 8-9 a.m., 9-10 a.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and 8-9:30 a.m., 9:30-11 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays), and no more than 70 percent of a department’s course offerings can be scheduled during peak hours. (To track all this, the university generates enforcement reports.)
Also included in UBC's guidelines: any class that’s not utilizing an assigned room’s capacity can be reassigned to a smaller room.
And -- here’s a biggie -- schedulers are no longer accommodating requests to switch rooms based on proximity. " ‘Well, my office is in the building. I’d like to remain in there,’” Kraigher said, in reciting one regular request. “No. You can walk across the street.”
Presenters also talked about the tension that comes up with high-tech classrooms, with some faculty wanting those rooms so they can make good use of the technology, and others because they’re newer and nicer. There are preferences based on furniture type, too. (Tables or desks?) “Many times,” Shaver said in an interview after the presentation, “a bottleneck is caused by a ‘want to,’ not a ‘have to.’”
SCUP's annual conference continues in Montreal today.