Master Planning Campuses for Today's Students

Slowly, the term master plan is being set aside by college and university officials as their understanding of planning moves away from a static plan based essentially on architecture and landscape design. To be effective, today’s campus planning must be comprehensive and integrative, weaving together academic, student life, financial and physical planning.

The academic plan (the real master plan) is fundamental to the campus plan — without it, all campus planning decisions are extemporaneous — and yet, the academic plan is usually missing or ignored as the essential driver that establishes the context for planning. One reason is that reaching institutional consensus takes time. It is a political, social and emotional process that impacts the curriculum, staffing, enrollments, facilities and financial resources. It is a lot easier to just do a physical campus plan based on what fits and what looks good.

Differentiating between the campus planning process and the campus plan is important. The plan is just one product of the process. The process is critical — because the process compels the administration, faculty, staff and board to think long term and to think strategically. The plan is the result of that strategic thinking.

In its simplest form, the campus planning process consists of 10 steps.

1. Confirmation of Institutional Mission
2. Articulation of a Vision for the Future
3. Academic Plan to Realize the Vision
4. Environs and Campus Assessment
5. Building Assessment
6. Program Assessment
7. Summary of Needs
8. Prioritization of Needs
9. Alternatives for Addressing Needs
10. The Best Alternative —The Campus Plan

This linear planning process never is as linear as implied by a simple list. Despite the apparent rationality of the process, politics, emotions, personalities, finances and external circumstances play a role in shifting emphasis, requiring more effort in one area and less in another. A provost asks for more information about classroom scheduling or adds more peer institutions to the study. Data, that was thought to be clean, are not. One academic department needs handholding, nurturing and encouragement, while another digs in its heels and refuses to participate. Interesting ideas are articulated and need to be explored. It can be a wonderfully exciting and creative process. Once the academic plan is in place, the campus planning process usually takes about nine months.

Confirmation of Institutional Mission

The first three steps are interrelated. The mission statement describes the reason for the institution’s existence — what it does, what it values. For instance: The mission of Earlham College, an independent, residential college, is to provide the highest quality undergraduate education in the liberal arts, including the sciences, shaped by the distinctive perspectives of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). A basic faith of Friends is that all truth is God's truth; thus, Earlham emphasizes pursuit of truth, wherever that pursuit leads; lack of coercion, letting the evidence lead that search; respect for the consciences of others; openness to new truth and therefore the willingness to search; veracity, rigorous integrity in dealing with the facts; application of what is known to improving our world.

Articulation of a Vision for the Future

The vision statement describes what the institution would like to become. For example: Clemson University will be one of the top 20 public universities.

Academic Plan to Realize the Vision

The academic plan, also known as a strategic plan, articulates how the institution will realize the vision. A typical academic plan might have a series of themes, such as undergraduate research, interdisciplinary teaching or engaged learning. For each theme, there might be a statement of justification. There should be a series of goals related to the theme, a number of implementation steps to realize the goals and verification of the person or office responsible for implementation.

At a minimum, the academic plan should have a point of view about projected numbers of students, majors and faculty; changes in curriculum, schedule, pedagogy and research; and new initiatives and programs. In its simplest form, the academic plan should respond to two questions: What do we want our students to know and be able to do? How do we want them to learn?

The academic planning process is truly specific to individual colleges and universities. It is a superb opportunity to step back and assess the present situation, to think about future direction and then to decide how best to realize that future.

Environs and Campus Assessment

The next three steps usually can be conducted concurrently. It is during this step that both the campus and the surrounding community are evaluated. Are there changes or developments in the adjacent community that will have an impact on the campus? What is the nature of the town/gown relationship? What is the quality and condition of the surrounding community? Is it stable or changing?

The campus analysis includes studies of campus land use, landscape, formal and informal open space, pedestrian and vehicular circulation, parking, predominant building use, utility infrastructure, topography, land ownership, and design features and opportunities.

Building Assessment

The intent of the building assessment study is to answer the following questions: How much space does the institution have to support current programs and future plans? How is space being used? What condition is it in? Is it appropriate? How does the amount of space compare to standards and guidelines? How does the type and amount of space compare to peer institutions?

Program Assessment

This phase of the planning process involves meetings with academic and administrative departments and units to understand the nature of their work and how these departments might change in response to the institution’s vision. The academic plan creates the context for departmental discussion and ensures an institutional framework.

Summary of Needs

The goal of the three preceding studies is to develop a precise description of programmatic, facilities and campus needs that are required to support the institution’s academic plan and vision for the future. Here is where it all comes together — academic, student and residential life, athletics and recreation, financial resources.

Needs may be related to programs, staffing, location, facilities, land, organization and operations. One of the key questions to ask during this step is, how do these needs respond to and support the academic plan and the institution’s vision for the future? Another question is, to what extent will these needs strengthen student learning?

The summary of needs must not be a“wish list” of requirements that cannot be justified or does not support the academic plan. In order to ensure that needs remain in line with reality, comparisons can be made to accepted standards and guidelines. Benchmarking and peer comparisons are a useful tool at this point.

Although a collegial process should be used throughout the planning process, it is extremely important to make sure that extensive participation has been used to develop this summary of needs. Consensus is essential for the success of the eventual plan.

Prioritization of Needs

Most likely, the summary of needs will be beyond the resources of the institution, and prioritization will be necessary. Prioritization should be an open, public process so that the entire college or university community understands how these priorities respond to and address the institution’s mission, vision and related goals.

Alternatives for Addressing Needs

This is the fun part — where most people want to start. During this step, a variety of alternatives are explored to address the prioritized list of needs. Some alternatives are more feasible than others; some have a greater impact; some require more financial resources, while others have operational implications. All alternatives can be measured in terms of the extent to which they advance the academic plan, student and residential life plans, and the institution’s vision.

The Best Alternative — The Campus Plan

Through a broad and participatory process of review and discussion, a synthesis of alternatives is developed and that becomes the campus plan. Since the entire campus plan cannot logistically and financially be implemented all at once, it must be phased in through time — usually 10 to 15 years. Priorities established in an earlier step in the process help to guide the sequence of improvements — so too does the reality and availability of financial and funding resources.

Most institutions reevaluate their plans after five years. In fact, a number of state colleges and universities are required to do so. Plans are revised in response to changing needs, assumptions and priorities.

Campus planning is a decision-making process, rooted in an academic plan and responsive to the institution’s vision. While the campus plan gives physical form to a college or university’s academic, student life and financial plans, the broader import is the opportunity to ask fundamental questions about the essence of the institution and its aspirations for the future.

Arthur J. Lidsky is president and senior consultant for Dober, Lidsky, Craig and Associates, Inc., campus and facility planning consultants based in Belmont, Mass. He can be reached at [email protected]