Trading floor space for connection: Higher Education's Addiction to Buildings

Google "university" - and here is what you will see – page after page filled with images of grand ivy-covered buildings.  If you were an alien researching "university" from these images you would likely come to the conclusion that a "university" is a collection of gothic-revival buildings, often set up as a kind of miniature city. 

The truth is that this google search captures fairly well how we have come to define the university in the 21st century – largely synonymous with the physical college campus and what Sellingo calls the “Hollywood version” of the university. (If you haven't done so already check out Andrew Rossi’s sobering exploration of rising tuition and the challenges facing higher education in the 2014 documentary Ivory Tower).

American universities spent 11.5 billion on construction in 2015. While I’m assuming that part of this spending is renovations and improvements to existing buildings, the bigger picture is that our institutions are engaged in a heated buildings and amenities arms race where institutions compete for new students via the prestige awarded by shiny new buildings (a prestige game sometimes termed the "Edifice Complex" or "Taj Mahal syndrome" as noted in the NYTimes). And as I heard Jeff Sellingo explain at a conference a couple years ago, “Prestige is to higher education as profit is to corporations.”  

BTW, I’d love to see some statistics on the percentage of university capital campaigns that go to buildings and physical resources vs. human capital and learning resources (if you have seen this data please send it to me!)

Truth is, if we are going to reimagine the university and return to a focus on learning we are going to need some therapy to address what amounts to a cultural addiction to campus buildings and ammenities - an obsession which is shortchanging learning and threatening to bankrupt our institutions...

Johann Heri’s excellent TED talk on substance abuse suggests that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, but human connection.  Heri references Bill McKibben’s study about how Americans have a steadily declining number of close friends but a steadily increase amount of home floor space, and observes that we have “traded floor space for friends and traded stuff for connection,” leaving us as “one of the loneliest societies.”

I believe this truth holds true for learning institutions as well.  Have we in higher education traded floor space for community?  Traded amenities for learning?

Thankfully, we have a solution to our addiction.  When we look at the roots of higher education we find that it wasn’t always about the buildings –it was about community.  The solution we need is not so much to stop building, as it is to return to a healthier commitment to the human dimension of education.

1.     The idea of the “academy” is fundamentally rooted in the concept of a community of learners engaged with the city.  Go back to the intellectual foundations of the Western university in Plato’s Academy c. 387 BC and what you will find is an informal gathering of intellectuals, engaging in dialogue about great questions of their city and culture. 

Buildings do matter, and I’m fascinated by the physical design of the Akademeia - a space which was simultaneously a temple (space for spiritual reflection), a gymnasium (space for physical engagement and challenge), and a public park space suitable for intellectual dialogue.  This was the kind of holistic transformational space engaging mind, body, and spirit that launched Aristotle and the scholar-warrior Alexander the Great. It was a space that fostered community and deep learning. But the focus wasn't on the space - it was on the community that was fostered in that space. 

2.     The medieval universities were first and foremost communities of scholars and teachers.  Our word “university” comes from the Latin “universitas magistrorum et scholarium” which basically means a community of teachers and scholars.  As the university emerged out the cathedral schools groups of students hired their own teachers and found lodging in the city to devote themselves to their studies.  The space mattered – the borrowed cathedrals were a critical hub that provided a space for lectures, for books, etc.  But again, the focus was initially on the community, not the buildings. 

Of course, if we skip forward in time those universities eventually required their own dedicated buildings and libraries to hold their books after the advent of the printing press, and the universities gradually overtook their towns (like Oxford in the UK or Harvard in Cambridge), becoming small cities unto themselves.  In the modern university, as competition for students and research dollars increased, the focus somehow shifted to buildings as a marker for prestige, resulting in the current buildings arms race where we try to out-build our competitors.

The idea of community has now become peripheral to the university– something fluffy connected to student life and extracurriculars.  If you look at the way we run our fundraising campaigns and prioritize our accompanying strategic plans, you'll find an increasing portion of that budget going to building infrastructure (and administration), and a decreasing portion of that budget supporting faculty and efforts directly connected to nurturing community and learning.  

We need to do some soul-searching though and, like good entrepreneurs, ask ourselves, what is our core business?   Are we in the business of building a community of learners or are we in the business of building buildings? Is our most important infrastructure our campus or our faculty and staff?  How might we restructure our higher education programs to focus more on human connection and create spaces intentionally designed to foster that connection?  These are the kind of questions I hope to wrestle with in this blog...and would love to hear your comments.

Look for Part II of this post which will look at some alternative ways to think about campus space oriented around community and connection...

One additional note - I tried sketching out some of these ideas for a workshop I did at a CIES Conference in 2015. It is a bit slow in pace (need to redo the sleepy narrative), but integrates the story of my own education experience, some reflection on the history of higher education, and discussion of community-centric, engaged models of learning.  

Paul WaiteComment