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Campuses are far more than physical spaces (opinion)

Last summer, colleges and universities across the country sought to plan for the fall semester and make decisions about teaching and student life. An animating force behind all the conversations and strategy sessions was the notion of a campus.

At first blush, that might seem to be a painfully obvious observation. Of course, such discussions would include a consideration of the campus -- it is the space that these institutions occupy. But scratching the surface of those conversations quickly revealed that a campus is much more than that. A campus is indeed a physical space, but it also embodies a host of aspirations that lie at the very heart of higher education. When we welcome students to campus, we are not just inviting them to traverse a piece of property. We are asking them to join us in an experience with contours and character that extend well beyond tangible spatial markers.

A year later, the scenarios are more optimistic. Some institutions are requiring vaccines. Those that aren’t are still projecting more of a face-to-face footprint going forward. As we prepare for people to return this fall -- carrying forward all the lessons of the pandemic -- we would do well to consider what we mean when we talk about a campus and say we are going to deliver a campus experience.

  • Campus as a space. The campus is certainly a physical space with at least some defined boundaries. As a consequence, it is a space subject to pandemic controls: masking, social distancing, sanitizing. Where vaccines are required, it will be a space further demarcated by certain expectations. All of this is in the service of allowing institutions to present the campus as a safe and protected place. But we should then also ask ourselves how our students inhabit this space -- and what it means for how they experience instruction, classrooms and the overall college environment.
  • Campus as an intangible good. Much of the rhetoric that surrounded the lofty early plans about returning students to campus drew upon the intangible resonances that the word “campus” connotes. College and university presidents spoke of delivering a “campus experience.” This rhetoric evoked images of physical spaces (quads, greens, plazas), interactions (activity fairs, back-to-school gatherings) and services (dining, rec centers). The underlying assumption was that all these elements are good and necessary things for a complete college experience -- and that their absence would result in a diminishing of that experience.
  • Campus as community. Campus is the place where you run into people. Yes, you can find those same people on Zoom, but it removes all serendipity from the equation. Campus is the space for unexpected conversations, for surprisingly seeing people you haven’t seen in weeks, for dropping into offices, for informally sharing meals. For many students, campus was and is literally home; it is where they live, eat, exercise and attend classes. For others, campus was and is a safe space to gather with other students and have reliable shelter and services provided.
  • Campus as nostalgic longing. Because the campus is a community, some people have felt its absence acutely. Absence has made the academic heart grow fonder. We’ve missed the sound of footfalls on the sidewalks and in the hallways of campus spaces. We’ve craved the familiarity of campus locales -- the library, the coffee shop, the student lounge -- and the routine of campus schedules. And students have definitely indicated that they miss campus. A survey conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse, and presented by Kaplan, of 2,000 undergraduates from 1,200 colleges and universities in March of this year revealed that almost half want to return to face-to-face classes, and another almost 31 percent said they never wanted to have a Zoom class again. And I suspect that both of these numbers may even have risen as some of the uncertainties of this spring have dissolved and campuses have committed themselves ever more vigorously to face to face operations. They -- and we -- are pining for contact, conversation, the free flow of ideas that don’t have to be mediated by online platforms, and the chance to share our space with others. 

A Reckoning

But the pandemic and the shift to remote operations have also upset all these ways of thinking about campuses. They have challenged us to consider how different populations use campus spaces. What, for example, are the differences between how residents and commuters experience our campuses? Further, a recent article raised a range of related questions about the optimal use of existing campus real estate and how best to prioritize and design classroom spaces.

Queries such as these should make us ponder the extent to which our campuses, as currently configured, serve their institutions and students in ways that they, in fact, should. As many as 79 percent of the students in the study I cited above indicated that they wanted lectures to be recorded, and around one-third want “online access to college support resources” like advising. I suspect that these are not only or simply preferences, but that lessons about access and equity are embedded in the responses. At the same time, we are discovering the ways in which campus can be an especially supportive environment for some students. For first-gen students, for example, it may offer them a space that supports and understands their aspirations. For others, it may literally be a safe space where they can learn, study and thrive without distraction or threat.

The task, then, is to reimagine our post-pandemic campuses, and two initiatives provide models and insights. The first is the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice and its much-needed attention on students’ basic needs for food and housing. Their recent report about students during the pandemic, based on the responses of two million students at 202 colleges and universities, is a must-read for everyone in higher education. While the core findings are about housing and food insecurity, the report also contains lessons about how we design our campuses going forward.

For example, almost half the students surveyed said that they didn’t access certain campus support systems for securing emergency housing and meeting other needs because they didn’t know they even existed. While a variety of factors undoubtedly inform this lack of knowledge, might the location of such services and their relative accessibility on campus play a role?

The second initiative is universal design for learning (UDL), which encourages educators “to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people.” From courses to assignments to the spaces in which teaching occurs, UDL seeks to create pathways, structures and opportunities for all learners to excel. It encourages the intentional and transparent communication of student learning goals and expectations. It also encourages flexibility and accessibility so that as many learners as possible can engage with course material in the ways that allow them to thrive.

One of the guiding principles of UDL is to “optimize relevance, value and authenticity.” For a course this might mean providing content that acknowledges the ages and abilities of participating students. It means providing “culturally relevant and responsive” activities. Translating this to the organization and life of our campuses might mean considering the kinds of student activities we offer -- are we meeting all our students where they are experientially, or are we providing events and content that only speak to a small cross-section of students?

Embedded in both of these initiatives is a commitment to all students and their essential needs -- a commitment our campuses should reflect. What if we asked how our campuses as physical spaces support basic student needs? These spaces should, of course, be physically accessible and compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act, but they should also be welcoming and conducive to the ways in which the full range of students want to gather and interact. Does the structure, arrangement and configuration of these spaces promote the meaningful interactions that students are hungering for when they say they miss being on campus? Recent research is encouraging us to examine how learning is a deeply embodied experience. How do our campuses -- whether conceived as tangible physical spaces or more virtually -- shape students’ embodied experiences of college more generally? What if we turned a critical eye to our campuses with these questions at the forefront of our examination?

A vital piece of creating campuses for all students should also include reimagining them as virtual spaces. If we are going to take seriously the lessons of equity and accessibility that the pandemic has taught us, then we must be willing to acknowledge that campuses are not limited to the real estate they occupy. During the pandemic shutdown, student organizations, student life offices and various other support services creatively found ways to provide continuity of service and opportunities for engagement online. If we simply insist that all operations will move back to the physical campus and only be accessible there, we will have missed an opportunity and we will unduly penalize those students who have good reason to prefer having some of these things available remotely.

Many people are calling for our emergence from the pandemic to be a reckoning. For those of us in higher education, it should start with the very spaces and sites that house our aspirations for, and commitment to, all our students and their well-being.

Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt is dean of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Honors College, Mandel Professor in Humanities, and a professor of history at Cleveland State University. She blogs about issues in higher education at Tales Told Out of School and tweets at @school_tales.

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Campus planning advice for institutions without enough space (opinion)

Campuses are not just educational institutions but also workplaces. And as the migration to working from home brought on by the pandemic is unlikely to reverse entirely, this moment of transition presents opportunities for colleges and universities to reinvent their campuses for the future.

While some higher education institutions may find themselves with excess campus space, others have had a different problem: not enough affordable property. But today, those in normally tight real estate markets like New York and Boston and other cities across the United States are in the middle of a once-in-a-generation opportunity to expand their campuses. By leveraging both the shift to work from home and the buyers’ market in urban cores, they can position themselves for the next decade or more.

Even institutions that aren’t facing a chronic shortage of space can use this moment to align the use of prime campus real estate with their values and differentiators as they look to bring students back to the physical campus and compete for enrollments.

The transition to work from home over the past year has shown that many college functions could potentially continue to be remote -- or at least don’t need to occupy their current locations on campus. For instance, so-called rear-facing administrative operations that rarely come in direct contact with students, such as marketing and finance, may have team members who excelled while working from home and would prefer to continue to do so. Even if those teams work better together in an office, the pandemic could be an opportunity to relocate them from the heart of the campus to a commercial office space or even a converted home adjacent to campus.

Commercial Real Estate’s Loss Is Higher Ed’s Gain

For colleges and universities in competitive real estate markets, the expense of expanding can be insurmountable. But rates and values of commercial and residential properties in urban cores have decreased significantly. There’s unlikely to be a better opportunity to lease or buy properties near city campuses than in the near future.

This type of expansion is especially important for colleges and universities because, unlike some private companies, many institutions of higher education are tied in with their location. Harvard University or Boston University, for instance, will probably not open residential campuses in Wyoming or South Carolina. What’s more, an insurance company can simply inform its employees their positions are being moved to another state, and many of them will probably go along with it. But a college, however, has to recruit students and faculty members, and the campus’s location often plays a major role in that.

Indeed, in today’s competitive higher education environment, one way that colleges and universities can differentiate themselves is by giving prominent physical space on their campus to a school or program that reflects the direction that the institution is going -- or wants to go. That could be a section of the business school run by students and faculty and focused on entrepreneurship and innovation, for example, or an institute for racial justice.

These types of programs typically don’t need a great deal of space. In fact, they sometimes function without a dedicated space. But providing 5,000 square feet within a central building to such an initiative makes a statement about the pedagogical values of the college or university and enhances student engagement.

Even something as simple as a newly designed and visible career center on campus can help both with admissions and retention by reflecting the institution’s priorities in the design. Placing this new center in an off-campus site sends the wrong message, so moving offices off campus or to a less central campus location to make room for it can make a lot of sense.

Some campuses could go so far as to expand or create new academic programs where administrative offices once existed. Health and wellness programs are currently all the rage, but they weren’t all that common as recently as five years ago. Reorganizing campus offices in this unusual real estate climate can help colleges and universities be nimble and stay ahead of trends in student interests as they arise. Even simply adding housing or classrooms in prime campus locations currently occupied by offices can foster a sense of cohesion among the student body.

Design Opportunities at Off-Campus Sites

If administrative offices are moved off a campus, they can’t just feel like humdrum offices. The college or university should make a concerted effort to express its brand and culture in these new spaces. That goes beyond school colors or graphics. Since staff working at these new offices will no longer be surrounded by the campus environment on a daily basis, they need to experience the values of the institution when they come to work.

Being stationed off campus doesn’t need to feel like an exile. If the brand is strong, the brand can travel. Off-campus offices can be an opportunity for particularly daring designs -- tailored, engaging environments that may otherwise be challenging to create on a campus.

For example, an off-campus house that my team at Amenta Emma Architects and I converted to an office for Quinnipiac University’s brand strategy group includes a glass-and-wood conference room suspended in the middle of the space. The combination of this striking, contemporary interior and the home’s historic New England exterior reflects the institution’s blend of tradition and innovation.

A space like this can help immensely in recruiting top talent to work at an institution and emphasize key aspects of the university’s character. Everyone’s heard the expression “It’s a great college town.” That’s because true pride in a college or university can’t be contained by a property line.

The pandemic has been an extremely tough period financially for colleges and universities, many of which were already struggling prior to COVID-19. For those institutions without a significant budget for capital projects, a strategic repositioning of one or two elements in the central campus can be a cost-effective way to add energy to recruitment, alumni support and more without having to acquire or build a new structure. Doing so as the institution emerges from the upheaval of COVID-19 can avoid disruption to campus functions and provide a sense of renewal and moving forward.

Without tremendous investment, campuses can emerge from the pandemic better positioned and optimized for the future. A time when so many people are still working from home is a time to reorganize, rethink and renovate. There may not be another opportunity like this -- indeed, I hope there is not. But as many of you have told your students, you should always make the most out of your opportunities.

Michael Tyre is a principal at Amenta Emma Architects with offices in Boston, New York and Hartford, Conn. His focus is on planning higher education and workplace environments.

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Campus planning advice for institutions with unused space (opinion)

Across the country, college and university leaders are grappling with questions about how to adapt their campus facilities and plan for a post-pandemic future that may yet bring profound shifts. Even institutions that are on track to reopen and bring students back in 2021 must consider what the brick-and-mortar campus environment will look like as new and growing practices, such as distance learning, become more normalized.

Many campus leaders, for example, may find that a number of their campus spaces end up underutilized. Clearly, such a scenario presents a challenge, but it also offers a rare opportunity to rethink how institutional missions can evolve -- and how institutions themselves can best survive and thrive.

For those colleges and universities, a successful long-term pandemic recovery may involve shifting gears and reimagining their campuses for alternative and complementary uses -- notably, as community hubs and large-scale resource centers. Such an evolution in particular seems a natural one: as cornerstones of their surrounding communities, higher education institutions are in a distinct position to take on an expanded role, offering their resources in this time of need and beyond to help maintain or improve the quality of life and elevate the economic opportunities of the residents of surrounding areas.

In particular, college and universities have exciting opportunities to leverage existing resources to offer vital counseling and training services, to retool underused facilities as workspaces and childcare centers, and to use the campus as a space for public wellness and recreation. And all this can happen not just as an acute response to the challenges of COVID but also as an ongoing means of strengthening communities and filling gaps in local or regional services.

In some ways, the challenge of how to reimagine campus space is not a new one. As campus planners, we’ve already seen many institutions face headwinds related to falling enrollments over the past decade. In response, we’ve helped senior administrators as they’ve guided their institutions into new roles and 21st-century educational and economic modalities. Colleges and universities have become, as well as vehicles for learning, research centers, tech incubators, athletic powerhouses, corporate training grounds and arts and entertainment destinations.

The idea of broadening an institution’s scope of services is even more relevant in the current moment: as cornerstones of their surrounding communities, campuses are readily identifiable sites that can be activated for essential functions, creating an ecosystem that serves the daily needs of local populations all in one (relatively) geographically bound location. Colleges and universities are literally invested in their communities, often even to a greater degree than the federal government, and vice versa.

Now is a perfect time to survey the landscape and reimagine the campus once again. Here are several emerging possibilities for how these campus spaces can be further activated to offer resources to not only their students but other populations beyond them.

Co-Working and Corporate Partnerships

Excess campus facility space is well suited for flexible co-working uses. In the last five years or so, hotel chains and office space providers such as WeWork have offered start-ups, small firms and freelancers places to collaborate, innovate or write. With this past year’s COVID spikes and outbreaks in many cities, it might seem hard to imagine that people would be looking to campuses for this service in the immediate moment. But we have reason to believe that, over the longer term, this type of co-working use might take hold. That could be the case especially if remote work or hybrid models are here to stay and if any lag time occurs between the current acceleration of vaccinations and a return to pre-pandemic levels of on-campus enrollment.

If higher education leaders do confront a future scenario with fewer students on their campuses, student centers and other facilities present a great opportunity for the kind of work-friendly “third places” that are likely to become popular. We already know that many businesses will continue to rely on work-from-home models. Campus co-working sites are often closer to homes, schools, open spaces, vibrant populations and countless amenities. Plus, many institutions have modern facilities equipped to handle all different kinds of work, with cutting-edge IT systems and other supportive infrastructure. For companies looking to downsize their own office footprints -- which corporations from Barclays to Google have stated publicly -- unused teaching or common space might also present an opportunity for institutional partnerships, creating a potentially valuable revenue stream for colleges and universities.

Child Support and Daycare Services

Colleges and universities can also serve as centers for vital community services that often go overlooked. For instance, childcare facilities already exist on most campuses and have continued to operate throughout the pandemic, as they are often viewed as essential operations.

Looking ahead, with state governments making early childhood grants available, funding opportunities might increase, as well. And with the projected growth of hybrid K-12 school models that may test the limits of flexible scheduling when schools reopen, it also seems likely that the nature of many colleges -- physically sited within their communities -- will benefit parents who are also able to work on their campuses and therefore stay closer to their children during the workday.

Business Expertise and Counseling

Colleges and universities can also provide expert support for entrepreneurs and small businesses, which will be crucial as local businesses need more counseling and support than ever during the rebuilding and pandemic recovery process. The skills required to help a graduating student launch a business are similar to those that can help a local company get back on its feet during over coming months and years. Similarly, many business schools already provide free tax-filing support for surrounding communities -- a set of services that they can broaden and scale up.

Equally important, colleges and universities understand the distinct needs of their particular neighborhood and municipality and can use their physical campuses to reduce the burdens that might otherwise come with accessing such services in disparate locations. For example, someone who needs financial counseling could drop their child off at a campus daycare facility, significantly reducing the strain of trying to balance childcare with work or important personal administration needs.

Workforce Partnerships and Retraining

The federal government is currently promoting large-scale infrastructure projects. Colleges and universities, a primary provider of advanced professional-level science, technology, engineering and manufacturing education -- and the largest providers of continuing education -- will be vital assets in retooling the country’s workforce. Given this potential for large-scale, government-funded public works initiatives, it may be important that any new institutional strategic planning efforts now consider how workforce training programs can be incorporated into existing facilities.

Many community colleges have already rethought their campuses as such laboratories, and companies looking for a workforce pipeline have often donated advanced manufacturing equipment to them. In fact, recent coverage in The New York Times highlights the success of workforce training programs at Broward College in Florida and also notes that Google has partnered with over 100 community colleges nationwide to offer career-based training.

Thinking long term, courting investment from large companies will help college and university leaders activate campus facilities and services to an even greater degree -- creating opportunities for local or regional residents to receive new training and learn valuable skills, in the process filling any underutilized campus spaces and helping warrant the continued operation of resource-intensive facilities.

Community Wellness and Recreation

College campuses are also already equipped with outdoor spaces and gathering areas appropriate for social distancing -- a crucial public health asset during the pandemic period and a challenge for many communities, especially in urban areas. Why think of those campuses as separate entities? They can be fantastic places to walk, run and bike, and they are also often regional recreation centers -- offering public programs and public health guidance, equipment rentals, and training. Nationwide, hundreds of higher education institutions are in disadvantaged and disproportionately affected communities where accessible public space is otherwise limited. As people continue to seek outdoor and recreational space in the post-pandemic era, this is another clear area where underutilized campuses can fill a critical gap in services.

It is important to emphasize, of course, that these suggestions are not one-size-fits-all solutions, and that on their own, many institutions may not have the financial resources to transform their campuses in such ways -- especially as they face further reductions in enrollment and student fees.

That offers an argument for targeting government support toward helping higher education allocate more resources toward community-based programming. The benefits of this economic support, in the form of a local, state or federal funding, could be cumulative, with the implementation of the initial programming sustaining and creating jobs (training staff, constructing new space), and then the resulting programs (such as daycare facilities, job training centers and small business support services) further bolstering the economy.

Ultimately, while every college and university will confront its own specific challenges now and into the future, reimagining the role of a campus can be a useful way to begin reactivating these spaces. It can also be a way to trial new ideas that can help insulate an institution against potential structural shifts in the higher education landscape -- which may very well occur in different forms even after the pandemic.

Strong and healthy communities often depend on colleges and universities participating in local economies, and vice versa. Leveraging their extensive physical resources and intellectual capital in creative and outward-looking ways allows higher education leaders to expand on this important mission, strengthen the symbiotic relationship between the campus and surrounding area, and create a path through potential headwinds and toward continued success.

Mike Aziz is a partner and the director of urban design at the architecture and urban design firm Cooper Robertson in New York.

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