Facilities / auxiliary services / sustainability

What's the future of the physical college campus?

As one university plans to sell or repurpose a million square feet of campus space, experts discuss the role of in-person education as the pandemic recedes.


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Should professors and students pay more for the best spots? Yes, say parking reformers. 


Public universities will take on more debt as states decrease spending on capital projects

With state lawmakers unwilling to fund capital projects at colleges and universities, public institutions increasingly turn to debt to finance construction and maintenance.


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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Colleges should rethink how they will reuse their facilities this fall (opinion)

It is now probable that a national all-clear signal for the coronavirus pandemic won’t be possible until a vaccine is developed and administered broadly. That is very unlikely to occur before the opening of the fall semester on American campuses. The more hopeful and probable scenario is that new infections will level off and treatments will improve. Nevertheless, by September, a reservoir of millions of yet-uninfected Americans will probably remain, and some forms of social distancing will still be necessary.

What does that mean for higher education -- a sector of our economy composed of billions of dollars of public and private investments in campuses that are currently deserts, without students, faculty or staff? Most institutions are battling heroically to communicate online and to manage a very uncertain financial future. It will be surprising if donations will hold up in the face of an overall economic depression and erosion of personal portfolios and institutional endowments. The competition with other nonprofits for charitable giving will be fierce. Yet perhaps even more threatening will be the conversations in millions of households focused on whether students should return to campuses in the fall.

The conventional wisdom has been that enrollments increased during economic recessions, but that wisdom doesn’t factor in a wholly different medical environment. Now, many students may elect to stay home because they are afraid or because the pleasures of residential life have disappeared. They will seek to eke out their educational futures with various online providers. How they will discern what kind of educational focus will be productive in the new post-COVID economy, which is at this stage unknowable?

Few campuses should expect a return to normalcy next year, so what further adjustments will need to be made? Residential campuses will face a different set of problems than commuter schools, though many institutions are combinations. If there are considerably fewer students taking in-person courses on many campuses, what should trustees and administrators do?

In the short term, it is hard to see an alternative use for the largest buildings on many campuses, the cavernous football stadiums or basketball and hockey arenas. In an era of continued social distancing, sitting side by side with thousands of fans you do not know, or exchanging hugs with people you do know at tailgates or postgame parties, seem to be unattractive activities now. Even playing games without spectators, marching bands or cheerleaders runs risks for players and coaches, who must practice, perform and travel together. Will institutions be able to honor scholarships for athletes who cannot be on campus together?

In a national survey of 130 athletics directors, more than half foresaw revenue decreases of more than 20 percent. Even that is probably whistling in the dark. A recent Seton Hall University survey showed that 72 percent of the respondents said they would not attend resumed sporting events until a virus vaccine was available. Existing athletic conferences will have to be redesigned to eliminate travel costs; Seton Hall’s Big East Conference, for example, includes institutions in Nebraska, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. Without paying spectators, may universities will have to drop intercollegiate sports altogether or convert them to club teams or even intramurals.

In contrast, arts, music and other cultural activities may survive without in-person audiences, if they can practice and perform without close proximity. Already some musical groups have given concerts thorough Zoom. It will be difficult, but colleges and universities should make cultural events accessible to off-campus audiences, perhaps with nominal prices. If a campus has a functioning radio or television station, it might extend access and programing to community groups. Similarly, campus libraries might create new agreements with other local libraries, so their resources might be shared electronically and patrons need not travel.

If inexpensive and quick infection tests become available, it is possible to imagine that administering them daily to small groups of students at the classroom doors would be feasible. For large lecture hall classes, that probably would not work. So with fewer residential students and excess classrooms, campuses will need to find new uses for these spaces. In the short run, some campuses may follow Stanford University’s example of clearing student rooms for medical personnel and persons awaiting COVID-19 test results.

With millions of workers now unemployed, campuses will also need to think through how they can engage in on-site or online training for the new skills the changed economy will require. Some departments and faculty will be able to adopt that new very vocational mission better than others. For remaining residential students, new internships and other programs will need to be designed so that these privileged citizens can help other citizens with great needs. Students may be able to help with contact tracing, supporting health-care workers and, if safe, providing activities in nursing homes.

On residential campuses, lower enrollment will mean some empty dormitories. Simply turning off the heat, utilities and water is not civically acceptable. In an environment where many families will no longer be able to pay mortgages or afford rents, it would be irresponsible to let campus housing stay empty. Governments could create Section 8-like housing vouchers for families that would benefit from living on a campus. Rules would have to be worked out to assure nondiscrimination, family priorities and what campus facilities would be accessible to these nonstudents. Campuses should be free to negotiate some conditions in return for these vouchers within the basic legal framework.

Higher education is not as desperate as the cruise line, air transportation or hotel industries, but serious adjustments will need to be made. And some small colleges with low endowments and limited status sadly may fail, perhaps converted into senior retirement villages or corporate locations.

In the recently passed stimulus package, about $14 billion was allocated to higher education based on a formula of campus enrollment of 75 percent Pell Grant students and 25 percent non-Pell Grant students. Support for propping up largely empty campuses, however, will dissipate over time, given the enormous number of immediate needs governments must address. It will not be enough to point to the long-term benefits of higher education given the nation’s immediate health and economic crisis. Higher education will make new friends and long-term supporters if it shows it can be responsive to the crisis in a nonpartisan pragmatic repurposing of some of its facilities.

George R. La Noue is Research Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and author of Silenced Stages: The Loss of Academic Freedom and Campus Policy Debates.

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