Four Cornerstones of Campus Planning
I’ve dedicated my 30-plus year career to integrated planning for colleges and universities, a role that has allowed me to work with institutions around the world, express my clients’ vision, and meet the needs of all types of learners. From this experience I’ve concluded that all truly successful campus plans and capital improvements spring from the following four key considerations: mission, investment, balance, and engagement.
A deep understanding and positioning of core institutional programs, services, and stakeholders must be the springboard of every plan. Each institution has its own unique DNA that distinctly embraces context, classification, and accreditation. Differentiating between the four major institutional types enables DLR Group and its planners to provide a higher level of targeted analysis and strategies.
- Land grant institutions require solutions that support a drive to create deliver and value to state constituents. These institutions emphasize graduate-level research, instruction, and outreach in medical education, engineering, agriculture, and arts that positively impact economic, environmental, and social state-wide endeavors. The residential community is primarily off-campus and peers and competition are across the country and around the globe.
- Regional state universities, many of which have sprung from normal schools, support teaching, STEM, and business professions through a broad curriculum that ranges from baccalaureate to targeted PhDs. Regional state universities focus on the undergraduate experience and needs for each specific region and point of excellence. As these universities increasingly partner with host communities, compete across state lines, and recruit internationally, they upgrade the residential communities on campus.
- Liberal arts, faith-based, and private universities emphasize the development of the whole individual—mind, body, and spirit. Students learn to problem-solve creatively, integrate the humanities across curricula, and develop critical thinking skills. They participate in multi- and transdisciplinary activities to develop unique degrees and create new academic pathways. Extra-curricular activities are as important as academics, students regularly double and triple major, and a majority live on campus to create strong residential communities.
- Community and technical colleges support local workforce development. The goal is to prepare all learners for success and constituents include teenage, first-generation, underserved/underprepared, transfer, and continuing education students. These stakeholders have their eye on earning credits inexpensively, moving on to advanced learning, or quickly entering the workforce after earning a certificate or mastering a specialty skill. Historically occupying commuter campuses and service centers, these colleges are now considering the availability of student life amenities and housing options as part of planning.
Especially as many institutions mimic the strategies of peers they admire, it’s critical that their master plans are married to their mission. As trusted advisors, we can only measure the gap in campus resources needed to achieve our client’s vision if we understand what’s critical to recruit, retain, and support their target student cohort.
Building Return on Investment
Effective master plans deliver multiple outcomes for each dollar invested. They are the foundation of an experience that inspires student and faculty achievement on campus, as well as alumni, community, and corporate partnerships off-campus. At DLR Group, we think of this return in terms of supporting a three-legged stool consisting of reputation, resilience, and humanity.
- Reputation: Institutions that follow a rigorous planning effort prioritize facility needs, place greater emphasis on facilities that are critical to meet the mission (as defined above), and elevate their reputation. These institutions look for creative ways to plan facilities that achieve multiple goals, serve multiple user groups, and attract multiple investors. This planning asks big questions to arrive at innovative solutions: Why does the campus need more classroom space? How would new lab space inspire students and faculty to achieve success? Which makerspaces would attract partners to elevate the educational experience? Where would community-use spaces entice local corporations to cross-pollinate with their future workforce on campus? These types of questions, if answered and implemented effectively, can elevate an institution’s reputation.
- Resilience: Planning for the future takes into consideration daily facility operations, as well as unforeseen opportunities and threats. Our role is to steward the campus by using systems-thinking about design and function. Considering campus change in light of flexibility and impacts on maintenance and long-term affordability is critical. Siting a new building to improve collegiality, open space, circulation, and infrastructure is as important as its specific programming and design. As integrated planners, we look at ways to minimize disruption, enhance universal access, promote sustainability, and strengthen connectivity. We locate programs and facilities where they can take advantage of, restore, or enhance landscapes, utilities, stormwater management, walkways, bike paths, and public transit already in place.
- Humanity: Effective planning accommodates a variety of learning situations and styles. It positions safe, accessible, and comfortable environments. In an era of rapidly-changing demographics and digital tools, our goal is to encourage face-to-face interaction while meeting the educational needs of students, faculty, and staff. Public art, programming for diversity, free-speech zones, and makerspaces have gained popularity on campuses around the world for their ability to welcome under-represented groups, bring like-minded individuals together, and test innovative ideas. As more and more students self-define their needs and embrace their entrepreneurial spirit, we strategize flexible environments in existing and new facilities that foster creativity, community, and expression.
Balancing change and permanence
Every campus tells a story, but how do institutions incorporate meaningful discourse between heritage and evolution in our rapidly-shifting society? Higher education campuses conserve land, buildings, programs, and jobs that are the anchor of their neighborhoods. They embody both the history and the potential for the advancement of their communities. They are caught in the cross-hairs of changing political, economic, and cultural attitudes. Master plans must embrace the preservation of valued physical, financial, and human resources, as well as enable repurposing and reinvigoration for an uncertain future. At DLR Group, we are passionate about working through a wide range of scenarios that address teaching, training, personal, local economic, and global needs. Simply stated: our master plans provide a framework that is more like a mitten than a glove. They allow institutions to be nimble and respond to societal forces, yet honor founding institutional stories, values, and culture. As our clients apply creativity in credentialing, partnerships, technology, and transdisciplinary learning, we create a roadmap for the highest and best use of their buildings and grounds.
Providing a platform for engagement and a living tool
Adopting a 360-view outreach program gives all stakeholders a voice in the planning process, and embraces synergies that can only come from deep listening. This immersive practice includes personal interviews, gaming, and forums with people who are on campus every day–students, faculty, staff, and neighbors. Probing questions get to the heart of campus and community aspirations, ideas, questions, and fears, so individual and collective responses can help shape the outcome and drive implementation.
The 360-view approach reflects the cultural democratization that is emerging via technology and demographic shifts. It allows us to craft a project vision that a happy chancellor exclaimed was “pushed by data and pulled by dreams.” At the outset of the project, we help participants understand when and how they can contribute, what will happen to their feedback, how they can stay informed, when information is being shared, and how decision-making will occur. Being upfront about the outreach and engagement processes demonstrates respect, incorporates shared governance, overcomes cynicism, creates buy-in, generates funding, and eliminates misunderstandings between parties.
To take this engagement to the next level, we now advocate for web-based master plans so the process and products live on beyond the finite project timeframe. A static master plan with a single direction does not provide value to an institution–as one campus president noted, “it has the shelf-life of a banana.” I encourage colleges and universities to use the hard work, time, and money it takes to update a master plan and create an integrated planning culture, living documents, and links between strategic, academic, student life, and capital initiatives. Building a core committee with a shared history of team collaboration and a passion for innovation is essential to remain relevant in this ever-changing industry.
Our planning team at DLR Group is comprised of national experts who embody this broad view of the campus, the process, and the products. From professors and researchers to architects and engineers, we have a passion for academics, campus life, the arts, sports, health services, workplace, hospitality, retail, IT, and infrastructure. Because of our diversity we can see institutions and their communities holistically, and connect learners from pre-K through adulthood, in all stages of life. Together–whether contemplating academic buildings that incorporate industry; land use that combines living and learning; or development that dedicates space for high schools and health care–we have learned it is critical to constantly review campus needs in the light of mission, return, heritage, and engagement, so our partner institutions can achieve resiliency and elevate the human experience.