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I don’t know whether outer space is, as Star Trek tells us, the final frontier, but I know full well that physical space is among campus’s biggest sources of conflict. Where we park, where we teach and whether we even have an office are among higher ed’s most contentious issues.

On Star Trek, of course, the mission is visionary: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before. On campuses, the challenges are much more mundane but fraught financially and politically nonetheless. Decisions about building siting, architecture, layout, maintenance and remodeling rarely occur without controversy.

I recently had an opportunity to speak with Lori Pavese Mazor, who, for over two decades, has helped plan, manage and operate some of New York City’s leading institutions, including the CUNY Hunter College, New York University, the Brooklyn Public Library system and New York–Presbyterian Hospital.

A Yale-trained architect with an NYU Stern M.B.A., Lori generously shared her thoughts about how post-pandemic colleges and universities might rethink some basic assumptions about space allocation and utilization in light of current concerns over cost, eye appeal, fit, sustainability and especially the growing impact of remote work and remote learning.

Q: In our conversation, you called the campus a college’s most valuable asset. I certainly understand that the campus symbolically represents a college or university. Its appearance is key to its brand. Everyone instantly recognizes a portrait not just of Harvard, Yale or Princeton, but any number of institutions. But you implied that the campus is also a valuable financial asset. Is that true?

A: If I look at some of New York’s most prestigious academic institutions, Columbia, NYU and Barnard, a similar pattern is evident on the balance sheet: real estate and the endowment are the two largest assets. Columbia University, which is considered to be one of the top three landowners in New York City, values its real estate assets north of $6 billion, one-quarter of its total assets, which include a $15 billion endowment. NYU’s is the complete inverse, with $15 billion real estate assets being twice as large as their $7 billion endowment. At a smaller scale, Barnard’s real estate assets and endowment are nearly equal. For unendowed publics like SUNY and CUNY, real estate is their primary asset.

Q: Wow, the value of a college’s land and buildings really is remarkable. But aren’t those assets sometimes a mixed blessing, given an institution’s remote location or the high cost of maintaining and remodeling buildings? I have read that some campuses are actually tearing down older buildings (like Missouri) or proposing to sell campus property (like Drew), while others, in contrast, are desperate to expand, like Yale and the University of Houston, which recently acquired business parks or, like UMass Amherst and Northeastern, have purchased existing campuses.

A: Revisiting the value of the physical campus will be a trending topic over the next decade. Beyond the four walls of urban campuses, all university systems will face a fifth wall posed by the rapid expansion of those digital technologies now labeled the metaverse. Early examples of this technology, which Meta (formerly Facebook) has funded for 10 pilot universities this coming fall, has led to a banal version of the digital campus of the future. These “digital twins” are uninspired simulations of the existing physical space in a virtual model. But these pilot efforts will soon be followed by more innovative developments in the metaverse.

Q: Just visit a medical school and you’ll be amazed by how extensively these professional schools already make use of simulations, including virtual cadavers, hearts and brains, as well as surgery simulators—leaving those plastic toy human anatomy kits that children have played with in the dust.

A: Major breakthroughs will come with the full sensory haptic systems that are being developed in places like Carnegie Mellon make their way into the teaching and learning environment. Moreover, the metaverse economy has the potential to reconsider the value of real estate in the absence of scarcity.

Q: I think it’s fair to say that colleges and universities currently operate in an environment of space scarcity. At Columbia, there were only 100 general purpose classrooms. Even at my mega university, UT Austin, there were, as recently as 2014, just 259 general purpose classrooms.

We are now at a historical moment when many campuses have an opportunity to radically rethink their use of space. Space utilization lies at the very heart of many of the most vituperative campus battles. Every stakeholder wants more space—for dorms, research, parking, public-private partnerships and much more. But most urban institutions find it virtually impossible to increase their physical profile, for financial, political and community relations reasons. Even individual buildings can become battlegrounds—and not just over their names. Many campuses, including my own, have become mired in controversy over the fate of the institution’s libraries, as microforms and even books and journals are moved to remote storage and replaced with cafés, study lounges, high-tech classrooms and, at UT Austin, a welcome center.

A: This leads me to imagine a virtual world with infinite space where a faculty member could be assigned an office with shelves of virtual books that could be called at a moment’s notice, flipped and marked with what feels like a pencil or a highlighter, surrounded by a life-size whiteboard for sketching out big ideas and everything is automatically transferred to a journal article that’s been drafted using artificial intelligence for their review. Moreover, imagine the impact that virtual experience might have on the campus that exists in real life. Where would we hold office hours? Where would we hold meetings? Today’s conversations are about two unequal worlds: a real world, which offers visceral three-dimensional experience, and an online world, which exists in a flat two-dimensional space. As those two worlds converge, which will happen in this decade, the choices facing campuses about what functions to locate on Earth and what to move to the Metaverse will be more nuanced.

Q: Campus design physically embodies an institution’s brand and can impact, reflect and re-enforce a campus’s culture. I can speak firsthand about how my sprawling campus’s design has tended to balkanize faculty around departmental lines.

A: Physical space has proximity limitations that digital space does not, and we’ve already begun to experience relief from these limitations during the pandemic. As we quickly moved our operations remotely, I don’t think any of us realized the long-lasting impacts this would have on the future of work. Zoom and Slack have allowed us to stay connected in a way that perhaps we would not have before. But even with these technologies, it’s important to intentionally create a virtual space where diverse ideas come together. Otherwise, we simply end up recreating the silos and boundaries we have on earth in the virtual realm. Some of the most innovative thinkers in the metaverse are Black and brown, female and nonbinary—people who come from disenfranchised populations and see the potential in the virtual world to chart a new course forward. We are all immigrants to this virtual world without the politics of occupation and territory.

Q: In addition to calling us to question the politics of territory, another consequence of the pandemic is to make campuses think much more seriously about their use of green space, which has rarely been deployed productively or creatively. Might it make sense to have more pavilions or even tents to shelter events?

A: As we reckon with the impacts of climate change, our outdoor spaces need to be capable of sheltering us in extreme temperatures and under inclement conditions. There is scientific evidence of the value of being in nature on our psyche and outdoor spaces will continue to be precious resources for academic communities. On the flip side, one of the virtues of a virtual world is that we can be made to feel a consistently comfortable body temperature. Rather than viewing climatized spaces as mediated by walls to contain tempered air and separate us from the outside, spaces might be categorized on a continuum of temperature from those that feel hot to those that feel cold. We might choose these different environments to suit our metabolic needs or personalize our climate.

Q: Among the biggest issues involving the physical plant relates to teaching. Outmoded facilities are overloaded with lecture halls and small fixed-seat classrooms, plus a scattering of seminar rooms, and provide few spaces suitable for active or team-based or technology-enhanced learning. Lab space is inadequate to meet the growing for programs in biological sciences, neuroscience or engineering but can’t easily be expanded because of cost constraints and safety regulations.

A: Large lecture halls and teaching laboratories have definitely been the limiting factors for being able to deliver innovative educational experiences at both the private and public institutions. During the pandemic it became easy to move a large lecture class online, and I think many institutions will keep this practice. There’s very little value added by being in a room with over 300 people looking down on a lecturer and a slide projector. However, the laboratory experience will remain hybrid and rightly so. There are powerful virtual technologies that allow students to be in a lab and run experiments, and we have used these across the natural sciences. However, there’s no alternative yet for the clinical experience. Even programs like nursing and physical therapy that have had long-standing simulation labs value the in-person experience of a classroom laboratory. No patient wants a nurse drawing their blood for the first time if they’ve never done it in real life.

Q: What is the best environment for teaching and learning? Probably not the multitiered auditorium nor the teacher-focused, fixed-desk classroom or even a seminar room.

A: I see the evolution of the classroom in the same way as we’ve seen the evolution of the book. New books are now released in many different forms: hardcover, paperback, digital and audiobook. I still enjoy buying signed hardcover books and first editions. In the same way, I will always want to return back to the wood-paneled seminar room in Street Hall at Yale. At the same time, I’ve enrolled in Wharton’s first business certificate program in the Economy of the Multiverse with 300 other students from around the world and am curious about that virtual experience. The challenge for institutions will be to rightsize the physical campus accordingly and to be smart about which modalities best meet the needs of their market.

Q: What principles should guide the development of campus spaces of the future?

A: The focus of the future will be on quality of delivery. Wherever a class is offered, whether on campus, online or in the metaverse, the space where it is delivered will need to be first-rate. Students will no longer have tolerance for poor-quality experiences and will easily be able to navigate from one to another as barriers to entry are dismantled.

Q: Also, can we use technology to facilitate field-based learning by using digital modalities to extend the physical classroom and breakdown classroom walls?

A: Our experience of space will be phygital—you could be in a real classroom on a physical campus studying archaeology and walk out a metaphysical door to a virtual dig site. The beauty of this experience is that you could visit that virtual site at different periods of time. I would love to walk into a virtual New York City in the 1800s and stand on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 60th Street and watch a time-lapse construction of Central Park. This is now not only possible, it is probable.

Q: There’s a danger, I think, that an increase in online courses will make students’ relationship with the campus even more transactional than it already is. As fewer and fewer undergraduates conform to F. Scott Fitzgerald stereotypes, coming to college for frat parties, Greek life and intercollegiate sports, what should institutions do? How can the physical campus create a welcoming and supportive environment that will encourage students to feel a sense of belonging?

A: The pandemic taught us the importance of physicality to mental health, and I continue to believe in the residential college experience as a rite of passage into adulthood, above and beyond academic life. The undergraduate years are formative in establishing an independent identity from one’s birth family and place of origin. Any next-generation campus planning should think of the residential space for students as the heart of the campus, not the periphery. When we think in this way, we naturally surround these students with the support services they need to thrive in a world where the pace of technological innovation is outpacing our social evolution.

Q: As you just made clear, post-pandemic, campuses will continue to matter. But we need to make sure that the experiences that the campus offers are more meaningful and consequential than those that can be accessed virtually. In a highly contentious opinion piece in The New York Times, Nick Burns, the editor of American Quarterly, insisted that “Elite Universities Are Out of Touch. Blame the Campus.” These campuses, he claimed, are too insular and inward turning, to which many comments responded: No, campuses are among this society’s few oases of genuine diversity, which needs to be insulated, as much as possible, from outside meddling.

A: Universities have already taken and will continue to take greater steps to become resources to their home cities and regions. I grew up in a small town where the local pool, tennis courts and fitness center continue to be located on a college campus. The most controversial act of my preteen years was when the college converted the local movie theater into classrooms. I think they learned their lesson about town-gown relationships after that. University facilities have the capacity to serve both populations and creative campus planning maximizes the use of space for many different purposes throughout the day. In my vision for the future, the campus is a K-12 school, a center for lifelong learning, a community center and a resource for young and old.

Q: Very few have imagined a learning space that might bring together K-12, two-year, career and technical, and four-year education and museums into a more sweeping vision of a campus. As Ryan Craig recently observed, success in the online certification programs offered by Amazon Web Services, Google and Microsoft, which are key to creating new avenues to upward socioeconomic mobility for the most disadvantaged students, hinges on ready access to wraparound support services. Unfortunately, all too many colleges and universities have been missing in action. Should other institutions follow Georgetown’s example, which established its Capitol Applied Learning Lab to facilitate students taking D.C. internships? Or are there other models that make sense, like classes that include an internship with a local school or government agency or a nonprofit or for-profit? If institutions take these steps, what is the goal? To expand access and enrollment and facilitate experiential learning, or simply to tap new markets?

A: We are already starting to see the blurring of universities and for-profit technology companies in the education space. Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Meta are both the biggest threat and the greatest opportunity we have to create a continuum of academic and experiential learning with the support services that a residential academic community is poised to deliver. Universities are perfectly positioned to be both the imagineers of the future—developing the research, insights, foresights and applications of technology—and the implementers, using their own campuses as living laboratories to test and iterate these inventions. In addition, if we think of the metaverse as the next frontier, it will need thought leadership in governance, law, systems, finance and health. Any strategic forecaster of the future knows that knowledge of the past and particularly a reckoning of our past mistakes, is the groundwork for imagining a better future.

Q: Does the isolated location-based campus still make sense, or should senior leadership consider other options? For example, should colleges follow the medical center model and distribute branch campuses, extension centers and adult learning facilities across a region? I myself argued on behalf of a distributed model of “storefront” or “boutique” campuses across the lower Rio Grande Valley, which held out the prospect of better serving a region with poor public transportation options by providing locally available face-to-face support. Or should institutions follow the example of those schools that have established mini campuses in major global cities, such as London, New York, Paris, Rome, San Francisco or Washington, D.C.? Or should they dream even bigger and, like Northeastern, disperse campuses across the nation and even the world?

A: As long as political boundaries continue to exist, it’s important to go to where the students are, and the American model of higher education continues to be attractive and needed around the globe. Wherever a physical campus is located, it needs to be walkable. The 20-minute walk serves as a simple organizing device. The pandemic amplified this idea, but it’s one that city planners have used for decades to lay out well-planned cities with micro-communities. Within 20 minutes, one should be able to reach every basic service needed—from medical facilities to groceries. This is one of the great attractors of global cities like the ones you mention and what led me to settle in New York. This is the lifestyle that many people desire, but it’s becoming less and less affordable.

In science fiction, the future almost invariably looks like an exaggerated version of pre-existing present-day trends and no doubt my imaginings of the campus of the future reflect my own predispositions:

  • That most students want a rich, robust campus experience, though not necessarily the kind that previous generations took for granted.
  • That students need a real reason to be on campus and accommodations, like drop-in childcare, to make that possible.
  • That it makes sense for students to spend less time on campus and more time in community-based learning experiences, whether these take the form of internships, field-based investigations or study abroad.
  • That while the future of higher education may well be hybrid and more experiential, students will continue to need the interaction, sense of community and wraparound support structures that are best offered in person.

Most science fiction versions of the future are dystopic, offering an interesting vision of the future but little resolution to our current problems. These we must solve ourselves. At the same time that Mark Zuckerberg and the meta-heads are imagining and creating the metaverse, those of us on earth need to re-engineer the physical environments that will complement the metasphere. Physical and virtual experiences should dance with one another and the college campus is the right place to start thinking, dreaming and experimenting.

As we re-imagine the campus, I think there’s a straightforward principle to bear in mind: do those things on campus that really can’t be adequately replicated elsewhere—collaborative inquiry, problem solving and project development, as well as intensive mentoring across multiple dimensions, academic, to be sure, but also helping students define a direction in life, chart a path forward, manage emotions, achieve essential competencies and develop more mature interpersonal relationships.

That, I learned from Lori Mazor, is not just a matter of more student-centered teaching or more engaged faculty or expanded student life budgets. It’s a design challenge of the highest order.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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