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Essay on need for colleges to define importance of physical campuses

A 'Place' for Higher Education
April 23, 2012

As an aspiring environmental psychologist at the University of Michigan in the 1970s, I received an NSF-funded undergraduate grant to study the use of outdoor spaces on campus.  I spent an idyllic summer observing how students and others used the benches and grassy areas of the “Diag” at the center of the Ann Arbor campus.  That experience demonstrated for me the importance of “place” in higher education, most notably how students work and play individually and in groups on a college campus. 

In the years since, while working at several different universities, all of which have significant historical investments in their campuses, I continue to reflect on how to ensure that their physical resources are utilized as an asset.  Technological developments and financial forces have led to the increasing prominence of online education, which challenges the value of a physical campus for delivering a college education.  I continue to believe that there is a strong case to be made for the strategic value of “place” in higher education, while adapting new technological advances and responding to financial pressures.  Campus-based institutions must continually and explicitly make that case.

In “The University of Wherever” (The New York Times, October 2, 2011), Bill Keller mused on the predictions that “place” will become obsolete in higher education: “Digital utopians have envisioned a world of virtual campuses and ‘distributed’ learning.  They imagine a business model in which online courses are consumer-rated like products on Amazon, tuition is set by auction services like eBay, and students are judged not by grades but by skills they have mastered, like levels of a videogame.”  Despite the proliferation of online learning, Keller observes that it has had minimal impact on elite higher education observing that: “Our top-rated universities and colleges have no want of customers willing to pay handsomely for the kind of education their parents got.” 

But what are the risks for higher education if institutions do not adapt quickly or significantly enough to this dramatic environmental change? Clearly the demand exists for the current product that these elite institutions deliver, but for how long and for how many institutions?  In The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out, Clayton Christensen argues that educational technology and other factors place American institutions of higher education at great risk.  He states that even as our traditional universities continue to perform critical functions, they also face “disruptive innovations” that are changing the educational landscape and they must respond.  His concern is: “If they cannot find innovative, less costly ways of performing their uniquely valuable functions, they are doomed to decline, high global and national rankings notwithstanding.”

Most would agree that all of higher education, including the elite institutions, must adapt to the changing environment.  The question is, how to change?  Traditional colleges and universities are located on campuses that are of equal or greater value than their fiscal endowments.  Abandoning these assets largely is out of the question.  The question for our campuses is how to maximize the value of “place” in the increasingly competitive higher education environment.

Students, faculty and staff occupy a physical, psychological, social and political space that we call “a campus.”  They come together in structured settings – e.g., formal classes, working as a group in a science laboratory, performing in an orchestra, playing on a soccer team, etc. – and, perhaps of even greater impact, they come together informally in groups of two, ten and twenty, in dorm rooms, lounges, and even on the benches of outdoor campus spaces. 

As institutions review and revise their strategic plans and determine how to best market themselves, they should carefully consider how to enhance the campus experience as a space where people come together in ways that they cannot in cyberspace (or at least not yet).   

How can institutions support pedagogical settings and techniques that take advantage of campus settings – seminars, laboratories, practice rooms, computer-supported classes and cooperative learning?

How can residential colleges and universities facilitate the kinds of social and educational interactions that develop skills that are critical in the work place and in life? Are there adequate and comfortable small and medium-size spaces for scheduled and unscheduled activities in both residential and academic buildings? 

How do campus residency requirements direct students to spend their time in campus-based experiences that cannot be replicated elsewhere? How do campuses connect to their local communities through volunteer activities, service learning, and internships?

And how do study abroad policies ensure that off-campus experiences are unique from the “home” environment?

Since the solutions should be crafted out of each institution’s strategic planning process, there are many directions one might go in to maximize the value of “place” on campus.  As part of this process, institutions also need to identify and minimize experiences that undermine the importance of “place” on their campuses. 

For example, if large lectures can be (and are) delivered over the Internet, is there enough value-added to the students’ campus experiences when they sit in a lecture hall week after week?  Also, if much or all of what a campus-based institution has to offer is also offered online, why pay the higher cost of going to that place?  There are ways to establish a balance between the virtual world and “place” that capitalize on campus-based institutions, ranging from the use of technology in and outside the classroom in support of the on-campus learning experience to hybrid courses and programs that utilize a combination of campus-based and online interactions.

The residential, academic community has and will continue to provide locations that are truly valuable to today’s students.  This sense of “place” goes beyond the physical environment.  It includes the psychological, emotional, social and political space that is held in the memories of students, faculty, staff, and alumni.  It includes the image held by prospective students and their parents as they make choices about where to attend college.  

If institutions keep in mind what makes their campuses unique living and learning environments and support opportunities like the one I had years ago in Ann Arbor, they will adapt well and flourish in the digital age.

Bio

William H. Weitzer is executive vice president at Fairfield University, in Connecticut. He is conducting research for the Spencer Foundation this year on the impact of the “new” economy on higher education.

 

 

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