The Value of First Impressions

Perception is reality, and first impressions do matter. When prospective students — and their parents — are shopping for where to spend their dollars for higher education, what they see and experience when they first walk onto a college or university campus affects their choices. In this article, College Planning & Management profiles two institutions that have learned the value of the campus itself as a recruiting tool. Campus improvement and beautification projects at Southeastern University in Lakeland, Fla., and the Belknap Campus of the University of Louisville have brought both schools many benefits, including an improved image, growing student pride and involvement, and increasing enrollments.


Born Again: The Rebirth of a Christian University Campus
by John Kautz III

Prominent central Florida attorney and former Southeastern alumni president Karl Pansler says he wouldn’t have sent his son to college at Southeastern 10 years ago. The grounds were dreary, the facilities outdated and the atmosphere was dull. School officials, other alumni and the board of directors also felt Southeastern wasn’t reaching its full potential. Seven years ago, under the visionary leadership of Southeastern’s then-new president Mark Rutland, we created a facilities master plan for the renewal of our campus.

The Problem

Our residence halls hadn’t been updated for a half-century. Our main administrative building, where campus visitors first arrive, looked more like a nondescript office building than an august collegiate hall that beckoned prospective students and their parents. And despite having a paradisiacal location between two lakes and grounds laden with majestic, moss-draped oaks, our campus lacked spaces for students to gather and enjoy the gorgeous setting.

The Solution

We employed a three-prong approach to resurrecting our facilities that has improved the university’s atmosphere and is arguably responsible for some of our enviable increase in student enrollment. The three ingredients that have transformed our campus are; building and renovating buildings in a compelling and consistent architectural style, improving our landscaping and adding outdoor amenities that promote a sense of community.

At the new Southeastern, students, staff and administrators walk through breezeways and archways and engage in conversation while seated on villa-style benches in courtyards and along promenades. Water bubbles over tiered fountains located at the center of petite plazas. These additions — breezeways, archways, courtyards and fountains — are hallmarks of the Mediterranean architectural style with which we recast our campus and gave Southeastern a clear visual identity. Now, eyebrow arches, Romanesque columns, terra cotta roofs and buildings painted in Tuscan hues of tan, copper and natural yellows add beauty and a casual elegance to our campus. With this extreme makeover, once-drab men’s and women’s residence halls built in the 1950s now sparkle in the heart of campus. Last fall we replaced a 70-ft., circa-1970 gray metal steeple, which topped our chapel, with a more Mediterranean-looking, stucco cupola that houses a chiming system that sounds hourly.

Since we’ve adopted the Mediterranean style for our campus, we’ve also designed new buildings in this vein. Three new three-story, 58,000-sq.-ft. residence halls with Spanish-styled roofs and balconies glisten in the Florida sunshine when students and visitors drive through the main campus entrance. The backs of two of these U-shaped buildings face each other and form a large courtyard that has walkways, grassy areas and a centrally placed Canary Island date palm. The palm is planted in a large, raised flowerbed with low walls for seating.

In addition to architectural elements, we’ve poured nearly a half-million dollars into our landscaping. Landscape planning has given us more opportunities to showcase our adoption of the Mediterranean style. Rows of 20-ft. Medjool date palms stretch down the middle of pedestrian thoroughfares. Bright red bougainvillea and Seminole pink hibiscus flowers bloom from large, Old World, clay planters spaced between the palms. We landscaped the quad with colorful, tropical plants to help create a Mediterranean environment in the middle of campus. The plants include birds of paradise, Maui ixora, hibiscus, Petra crotons, blue plumbagos and pink oleanders. The plantings fill mulched beds along both sides of a three-ft., black, ornamental fence that surrounds most of the quad. Our 10-year master plan also advised us to create spaces for students to meet and talk to promote community-building. We’ve built brown cobblestone walkways and plazas where students gather, study and chat on low walls and benches. Waste receptacles that appear as bases of thick Roman pillars sit near six-ft., villa-style benches in the plazas and along the main cobblestone walkway that flows through campus. The pedestrian walkway features a computer-controlled outdoor sound system with a network of 40 in-ground speakers that broadcast soft jazz most of the year and instrumental Christmas music during the holidays.

In the center of our newest 1,000-sq.-ft. plaza, whitewater cascades off a round stair step, travertine marble tile fountain. A bronze sculpture of Jesus washing the feet of his disciple Peter is mounted upon the fountain. We erected eight columns reaching 12-ft. high upon a low wall that surrounds the plaza. We also inset stone plaques that bear the names of Jesus’ 12 apostles into the plaza’s cobblestone pavement. We envisioned this plaza as a place for reflection upon the mission of our university: to serve in the spirit of Jesus Christ.

The Results

Recasting Southeastern’s campus has reaped at least three benefits for our university. First, both renovating and building new buildings have given our campus an aesthetically pleasing and consistent architectural style. Second, our new architecture, the open spaces and other improvements create an atmosphere of exuberance, reflection and nobility. Third, our campus improvements have coincided with a more than doubling of Southeastern’s student body. The combination of our new academic programs, recruitment efforts and our new look is largely responsible for our tremendous enrollment growth.

While many campuses consist of a hodge-podge of architectural styles based on the era or administration in which buildings were constructed, the Mediterranean style we selected unifies our campus and lends a timeless grace to our grounds. The elements we designed into our old and new buildings — balconies, breezeways and courtyards — are signature elements of this style of architecture. And like original buildings upon the Mediterranean Sea coast, our architectural efforts create spaces that help people enjoy our temperate climate and attractive scenery. We’ve also given Spanish names to many of our buildings, streets and walkways — such as the Aventura (Adventure), Esperanza (Hope) and Destino (Destiny) residence halls — to enhance our use of the Mediterranean style. The Spanish names also acknowledge Florida’s Spanish heritage.

In addition to defining the architectural style, our building features serve a practical purpose: they help build community by providing students and faculty with a place to reflect and interact. Even the function and Spanish name of our newly built cobblestone walkway —“El Prado” — promotes community and spiritual reflection. Southeastern President Mark Rutland, who is fluent in Spanish, envisioned El Prado as a place for a leisurely walk where one would encounter friends. Bernardo Blanco, a linguistics professor at Southeastern, says“El Prado” is a word primarily used in Spanish literature from the medieval period to the 19th century that means “the meadow.” The word can be found in Psalms 1 and 23 in Spanish translations of the Bible to refer to places where shepherds tend their sheep. Blanco, a native of Costa Rica, says “El Prado” usually refers to a place of open air and space beside quiet waters, such as a stream or lake. Blanco says he occasionally sits on benches along Southeastern’s El Prado, closes his eyes and reminisces of home in Costa Rica.

In addition to revamping our campus and creating spaces for meeting and contemplation, our improvements have been partly responsible for our dramatic increase in enrollment. More than 1,200 additional students have chosen Southeastern since the late 1990s, when our enrollment never exceeded 1,100 students. Last fall — for the 2005-06 academic year — we boasted an enrollment of 2,336 students — a more than 116 percent increase over our 1998 enrollment of 1,078 students.

While it’s impossible to credit our enrollment growth solely to the improvement of our campus, landscape architecture professor Phillip S. Waite of Washington State University told a meeting of the Society for College and University Planning that good campus landscaping could influence recruitment and retention. According to Waite, giving people good places to sit, meet and reflect helps create an attractive campus. We believe Professor Waite’s theory that the beautification and renovation of a campus can help boost enrollment and retain students. A 2004 survey by Art & Science Group, a marketing firm that specializes in higher education, found that the campus visit has a far greater impact on college choice than any other factor. Moreover, the survey found that “the hospitable nature of the community, the friendliness of the people and the overall appearance of the campus” are the factors that influenced prospective students’ interest in a school.

Alumnus and Attorney Pansler, who wouldn’t have sent his child to Southeastern a decade ago, says the campus renovations have created spaces in which people feel more welcome. Although disappointed by Southeastern 10 years ago, Pansler trumpets the amenities the university now offers. Would Pansler send his child to Southeastern now? His eldest son, Chris, finishes his second year this spring.

John Kautz III is vice president for Finance and Administration at Southeastern University in Lakeland, Fla. He can be contacted at [email protected]


Beautifying Belknap
by Kevin Rayburn

Getting to the University of Louisville’s park-like main campus used to leave a stark first impression as one passed decaying neighborhoods, aging factories, unsightly utility poles, prohibitive metal fences and a heavily traveled interstate corridor. Sprucing up those perimeter areas surrounding the Belknap campus of the University of Louisville (U of L) was one of the main objectives behind a new campus beautification effort being led by Jane Ramsey, wife of University of Louisville President James Ramsey.

“The campus has grown far beyond its old boundaries, and Jim and I thought we should make the area feel and look safer, more comfortable and pleasant for students and visitors,” comments Ramsey. “For students, this is their home away from home.”

Beginning the Process

The effort to beautify the Belknap campus began in 2003 when the university received a $1-million grant from the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet to improve traffic and pedestrian flow and to reduce accidents in the campus area. The grant funded security lights, new sidewalks, signs, treed medians, a new bus stop and plantings along the campus’ major thoroughfares and gateways.

Better definition of campus boundaries has been another goal of the effort. “Sometimes it was hard to tell when you were on campus and when you weren’t,” says Ramsey, “so we had to find ways to tell people where they were.”

Making a Proper Introduction

For instance, the main entryway to campus had no prominent signage. Now, a sleek concave concrete wall announcing “University of Louisville” hugs the ground between the entrance’s familiar brick columns. Flowers and other plants encircle the wall, which is brightly lit at night. Raising general campus spirit was another of Ramsey’s goals.

Images of the university’s mascot, circular Cardinal head “medallion” paintings adorn the sidewalks, underpasses and streets on campus. “Louisville Legends” banners on the streetlights serve the multiple purposes of raising school spirit, honoring prominent people in the community and directing the eye away from decaying portions of the street. Large, two-story banners hanging from buildings around campus honor university accomplishments.

Recognizing the Benefits

The campus beautification effort has had a positive impact on student recruitment, retention and morale.

“It definitely makes you feel more proud to be here,” says sophomore Ashlee Lonnemann, of the initial beautification efforts. “It adds to the sense of community.”

"This is something that makes such a big difference,” says senior Brian Foltz. “It really livens up the campus and surrounding area. The pride that things like this instill in the community is great.”

“We’ve started on cosmetic things we could do cheaply and quickly, and as we go along and raise more money we can look at larger projects and improvements,” comments Ramsey.

Continuing the Process

Bricks from the razed Parkway Field wall — home to professional baseball in Louisville for much of the first half of the 20th century — are being packaged inside glass and wood cases and being sold as memorabilia to help fund the ongoing campus beautification efforts. Johnny Unitas, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and other past users of the field give the bricks a historic significance.

“We’ve got a lot more ideas than money right now,” Ramsey says. “But I see campus beautification as a never-ending project. We want to make the whole area nice and keep it that way.”

Reprinted with permission from the University of Louisville. Contact Kevin Hyde, editor of UofL Magazine, at [email protected]

In the ongoing beautification of Belknap, other improvements include the following.

• Painting campus area underpasses and overpasses in school colors with the added touch of Cardinal Bird heads.
• Removing the old Parkway Field wall and running track and re-dedicating the newly grassed and lit field as a multi-use sports field for students.
• Working with representatives from the mayor’s office, the Louisville Housing Authority, railroad officials and other community leaders to plan long-term cleanup and improvements in surrounding neighborhoods.
• Placing two-story banners on various campus buildings touting proud U of L achievements, such as NCAA victories and acquisition of the libraries’ two-millionth volume.
• Adding pole banners to the interior areas of the campus.
• Removing obstructive metal fences along I-65 and placing signs directing tourists to area attractions, such as the planetarium, Pap John’s Cardinal Stadium and Churchill Downs.