Over the past year, the disruption caused by the pandemic has revealed that forming connections is at the very heart of the postsecondary experience. At the same time, the COVID-19 crisis has created opportunities for shaping campus spaces and places to meet emerging challenges in connecting students, faculty, and staff.
“More than ever, the pandemic demonstrated the importance of being intentional about the higher education experience,” says E. Lander Medlin, President and CEO of APPA – Leadership in Educational Facilities. “We have to examine space through a wider lens, from both a facilities perspective and an institutional perspective.” Along with identifying critical issues, the institutional dialogue related to facilities needs to connect the goals of places, spaces, and operations with educational outcomes and the overall success of the institution.
One way to think of the pandemic is as a trial run for the next great challenge to postsecondary institutions: the “enrolment cliff.” This comes at a time when global competition for students has never been greater and philanthropic giving is in decline. Add to that the financial burden of COVID-related expenses, along with the loss of revenue resulting from the past year’s diminished enrollment and decreased use of ancillary services such as housing, and the case for change has never been so compelling.
“It’s important to have a heightened sense of urgency,” says Medlin. “The accelerated and disruptive change we have experienced this past year moves us from a mindset of doing more with less to doing different with less.”
American author and educational pundit Nathan Grawe argues that engaging in carefully planned retention initiatives could reduce enrollment attrition by 25%. “We need to think of our facilities as recruiting and retention tools,” adds Medlin. If, as the research shows, a sense of community and connection with friends are what students want most from on-campus experiences, then tailoring spaces and places to fulfill those needs is key.
The starting point is an understanding of the values and expectations of incoming students, both those from Generation Z (born in or after 1996) and nontraditional students aged 25 and up. Both groups expect campus spaces to provide integrated technology, reliable connectivity, flexible use, 24-hour access, safety and security, administrative ease, mental health supports, and opportunities for meaningful engagement. They expect a wide range of amenities, including childcare to meet the needs of nontraditional students. Gen Z students, in particular, increasingly expect built spaces to reflect values such as diversity, inclusion, and sustainability. Both groups favor spaces that create a sense of place and belonging.
“Students are hungry for togetherness,” says Medlin. “They come to us for the community we create, and the spaces that foster an experiential learning environment. Even online learning should augment those collaborative experiential spaces.”
Over the past year, the necessity for remote learning has revealed the presence of profound adaptability, resilience, and flexibility not only in technological capability, but also in faculty, students, and staff across the institution. While a certain proportion of the higher education community will want to continue learning and working remotely, a greater proportion are eager to return to campus.
This hybrid version of the institution that incorporates greater overlap between the remote and the on-campus experience presents several opportunities. In the future, some people may be on campus less frequently. Medlin suggests that this shift demands institutions be more thoughtful as to how people move through physical campus spaces.
The university community got a taste of this during the pandemic. For some of its members, being on campus was an infrequent occurrence. This meant that interactions became more intentional. For instance, if students had to be on campus for a lab, they made a point of getting together for social interaction as well.
The pandemic underscored what researchers already knew. “Movement outside the classroom is more important than the classroom setting itself,” Medlin sums up. “Community and connection with friends are what students want most from on-campus experiences.”
The Importance of Space
To meet this need, institutions may seek to maximize student, faculty, and staff interaction whenever they meet in person by utilizing one of their most precious commodities on campus: space. Institutions must build space around what is most valuable about seeing one’s peers in person. There needs to be a focus on welcoming spaces where people naturally gather, both inside and out, from lounges to stairways to quads. These spaces create opportunities for casual, informal—even accidental—interactions that are critical to experiential learning.
Sports teams, clubs, theaters, sororities and fraternities, and other campus organizations are all critical to experiential learning. And they all require space in order for their activities to take place.
“The physical spaces that bring people together into a shared experience are critical for boosting innovation,” says Medlin. “Online learning can be connected to those collaborative experiential spaces to augment them.” She gives as an example the creation of interdisciplinary science facilities that co-locate different types of faculties and students, incorporating spaces and amenities such as study rooms, media labs, conference rooms, library carrels, food services, and Wi-Fi.
Co-locating spaces to leverage opportunities for interaction, facilitate access to administrative functions, and provide flexible use can involve demolishing existing buildings and spaces, potentially reducing the campus footprint. At the same time, an increase in remote/hybrid study and work environments may allow institutions to recapture and reassign significant amounts of space.
Which buildings/spaces should be eliminated, repurposed, or upgraded? How much space savings will institutions actually accrue? “These kinds of return-on-investment questions are going to be really important to senior leaders,” says Medlin, adding that the data collected can be turned into information for strategic planning.
Facilities have always played an important role in ensuring that spaces and places on campus contribute to the performance and well-being of students, faculty, and staff. But throughout the past year’s forced disruption, it became increasingly important to ensure a safe, healthy, and productive environment for the campus community. Templates, planning metrics, and models were among the tools used to plan space changes for the academic, student, and staff community.
Short-term responses to the coronavirus had the unintended consequence of establishing a new floor for what constitutes a healthy building by establishing new standards for factors such as air circulation and cleanliness. “Buildings are central to our lives,” notes Medlin. “We spend 70% of our time in them. The indoor environment is so important to the total cost of operating our buildings because of its impact on human health and performance.” She adds that developing strategies to promote occupant health can be aided by smart technologies, which increasingly facilitate data collection for measuring environmental health (see Sidebar 1 at end: Sources of Data to Assist in Measuring Building/Environmental Health).
“Smart building technologies can provide a measure of predictive analytics that we need to make good, insightful business decisions,” says Medlin. “They can help make the business case for smart technology and healthy buildings. It’s important to approach the relative decision making involved … by thinking about the institution as a system. We need to approach this collaboratively.”
Success during the pandemic resulted from breaking down silos, with staff working collaboratively with students, academic programs, and administrative groups. “The relevance of facilities was further reinforced,” says Medlin. “When it comes to reimagining space, we now have collaborative opportunities that we did not have before.”
While technical challenges can be solved by knowledge experts, adaptive challenges are more complex and require a collaborative effort to formulate a strategic—rather than reactive—response. Furthermore, a strategic approach is necessary to create that elusive “sense of space” so critical to recruitment, retention, faculty recruitment, and branding. The importance of creating an iconic space should not be underestimated. For instance, at the University of Maryland, a bronze statue of the institution’s mascot, Testudo the turtle, graces the approach to the McKeldin Library, itself a valued gathering space. Rubbing Testudo’s nose for luck before an exam is a time-honored tradition shared by students past and present, binding them in a shared and memorable experience.
For those students and faculty who will inevitably choose to engage with the institution entirely online, the challenge will be to connect them to these kinds of experiences, this sense of place. As they will constitute a growing part of the university community, it is important that they feel included. In the increasingly competitive postsecondary environment, the stakes have never been higher.
Christine Hanlon is managing editor at Kelman and Associates, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, and she can be reached at [email protected]. This is her first article for Facilities Manager.
This article first appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of University Manager and was reprinted with permission from the Canadian Association of University Business Officers (CAUBO). Many thanks to CAUBO’s executive director, Nathalie Laporte, and writer Christine Hanlon for their assistance.