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Managing Campus Space in 2024: Insights from the Higher Education Round Table

In the dynamic landscape of higher education, managing campus space has become an intricate dance between tradition and innovation, necessity and aspiration. Lambent recently hosted a Higher Education Round Table in Harvard Square that provided a platform for diverse voices from various institutions to share their experiences, challenges, and strategies in navigating this complex terrain. 

For New England-based campuses, the rising costs of real estate, construction materials and competition from other schools within close proximity – and even the proximity of premium coffee and food offerings – make the business of running a college or university a unique challenge. From historical preservation to sustainability initiatives, from faculty dynamics to technology integration, the discussions reflected the multifaceted nature of the modern campus ecosystem. 

Historical Building Preservation vs. Modern Campus Innovation:

The age-old dilemma of preserving historical buildings while meeting contemporary needs resonated strongly throughout the event. Architects and space planners at a historical, private college just outside of Boston emphasized the struggle of maintaining century-old structures while striving for efficiency and functionality. The sentiment was echoed by many, highlighting the tension between honoring heritage and embracing progress.

When the goal is preservation, space planners often struggle to find balance between the need to maintain key elements of building design and transforming historical buildings to better suit student needs. And furthermore, what do real estate planners and facilities professionals do when forced to meet sustainability initiatives in historical buildings? 

Space Management Meets Faculty Dynamics:

Faculty dynamics emerged as a central theme, the round table unanimously underscored the hierarchy of teaching faculty and their unwavering attachment to office spaces. Many cite a generational gap, seeing younger faculty more willing to give office space back to the university and more open to office sharing or hybrid work structures than their longer-tenured counterparts. 

Space Planning executives from the University of Massachusetts system shed light on the challenges of adapting to post-pandemic shifts, where office space utilization remains a contentious issue intertwined with union regulations and institutional traditions. In a world where physical space is the embodiment of stature on campus and is documented as part of union benefits, its unsurprising that space hoarding on campus is charged with emotion, leaving little room for negotiations. 

Some headway in returning underutilized space to the campus is being made by smart space planners who are bringing data to the table and enlisting the deans of business and research as champions of said data. 

Campus Space Utilization and Efficiency:

Many of the round table leaders from both private and public universities cite a discrepancy between booked spaces and actual usage. Anecdotal data highlighting the ghost-town experience of campus walkabouts called reservation systems into question as visibly empty rooms appear booked and used. These experiences underscored the importance of having reliable, unbiased, actual occupancy data.

Campus leaders across the board are navigating a landmine of territory wars, juggling inaccurate bookings systems against campus walkabouts. This creates operational issues on campus such as, a perception that the college is out of space, issues identifying swing space needed for campus renovations or restacking projects, capacity planning and projecting for campus enrollment growth, and proving to the registrar and budgetary committees that departments are using their space efficiently.

One of the institutions using Lambent Space technology described the power of unbiased data in solving these challenges. The space planner expressed a noted difference in building campus consensus when presenting data to the Deans of Business Schools, IT leaders, and the Registrar. “The first thing an instructor would teach students who need to solve problems is go get the data so they were more open to reading the data findings and more willing to act based on the results,” said the campus leader.

The Role of Technology on Campus:

“There’s an app for that” as they say and that’s true for those responsible for solving challenges on campus. Questions surrounding the role of technology in space management led discussions ranging from asset management software to space reservation systems. Institutions seek to leverage technology to streamline processes, enhance user experience, and optimize resource allocation. 

Technology is creeping into unforeseen spaces like on-the-go food services, healthcare, wayfinding, and even managing HVAC units and hybrid work. For these space planners, technologies’ main benefit on campus is helping drive operational efficiency and building better experiences. 

Challenges and Opportunities:

The event highlighted a myriad of challenges facing higher education institutions, from rising construction costs to the complexities of sustainability mandates. However, amidst these challenges lie opportunities for innovation, collaboration, and adaptation.

Managing campus space in 2024 is a balancing act between tradition and progress, preservation and innovation, necessity and aspiration. As institutions navigate this ever-evolving landscape, the insights shared at the Higher Education Round Table serve as a testament to the resilience, creativity, and adaptability of the higher education community. By embracing data-driven strategies, leveraging technology, and prioritizing student well-being, institutions can chart a course towards a more efficient, sustainable, and inclusive campus environment.

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