Not Just Business As Usual

Bowling Green State University Debuts New Business School

On the campus of Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio, the Robert W. and Patricia A. Maurer Center is open for business—literally.

The Maurer Center serves as the new home of the Allen W. and Carol M. Schmidthorst College of Business. The building’s dedication took place in Sept. 2020 after two years of construction. And now, the gleaming three-story structure—built to adjoin the century-old campus landmark Hanna Hall—welcomes business students, faculty, and staff daily into a learning environment that deliberately evokes the feel of a modern workplace.

Bowling Green State University Business School 

PHOTO CREDIT JAMES STEINKAMP PHOTOGRAPHY

Students entering the building find themselves in a vast atrium filled with natural light, collaboration spaces, common areas with soft seating, a café, and student service areas. Five LED ticker tapes embedded into the limestone elevator shaft display stocks, currencies, commodities, a breaking news feed, and the dean of the business school’s Twitter feed. The atrium is bordered on all three stories by glass-walled classrooms and other workspaces bustling with activity. The new business school feels distinctly less like a stuffy academic building and more like…well, a business environment.

“One of the goals was for it to resemble a modern, corporate office building so that students would be learning in a place like where they were going to work,” said Raymond Braun, Dean of the Schmidthorst College of Business. “So you live in downtown Dallas, and you walk in and see offices with lots of atriums and natural light and small offices, the collaboration spaces everywhere, that’s the feel the building has. So that’s where we go to work. And we wanted our building to resemble their future workplace.”

That office-environment feel goes for the faculty, too. Their offices aren’t organized by department anymore, cloistered away from each other; instead, they’re spread throughout the building, encouraging faculty to stream throughout the building and increase the potential for what Dean Braun calls “constructive collusions.” He calls it the opportunity for faculty and students to be in contact with each other and better get to know each other.

Early in the design process, there was some faculty pushback against scattering themselves apart from their immediate colleagues. “In fact, one faculty member said, ‘We don’t need collaboration. Why would I talk to him? I don’t even know him!’ Exactly. Exactly,” said Joe Connell, Design Principal with Perkins&Will, the design architects behind the Maurer Center. “The reason is collaboration, because you don’t know him.”

The university provost, Dean Braun, Connell, and other Perkins&Will designers were on the same page from the beginning that the new College of Business look and feel like a modern workplace—that the etiquette, the collaboration, the aura be infused into the DNA of the building.

Bowling Green State University Business School 

PHOTO CREDIT JAMES STEINKAMP PHOTOGRAPHY

Modern Facilities for a Modern Pedagogy

The school’s previous building, formerly the Business Administration Building and now known as Central Hall, was built in 1972. Traditional classrooms populated the first floor and offices the second and third floors. Classes and classrooms were laid out linearly throughout the building, and the larger classrooms all had fixed seating. Faculty and administration had to fit moveable furniture into smaller classrooms as they could. It was the oldest business school building in the state among its peer group. Dean Braun said that when he was hired in 2012, one of the goals he was given was to get the ball rolling on a new facility.

“We thought we needed to have a more modern, purpose-built business building for the campus, and we focused on designing it to facilitate the way we teach,” he said. “So, no fixed-seating classrooms. Seats are moveable in all the classrooms. Faculty can form groups and teach the students in groups; students can teach each other. It’s a very different teaching environment.”

Some classrooms have moveable walls and modular furniture that let students use the space however they need for group work, product planning, and real-life research. Two classrooms known as “innovation laboratories” were specifically designed and built for discovery-based learning. Students can display information from their laptops on wall-mounted screens. And the data visualization laboratory features a large monitor (spanning the length of the front wall) that’s made up of 27 separate monitors; it can be operated as one monitor, three 3x3-screen monitors, or 27 separate monitors.

The new technology and flexible learning spaces represent a shift in pedagogy, away from the traditional “teacher lectures, students take notes” method toward a more participatory experience. Dean Braun said that in many courses, students tend to do homework ahead of time, watch lectures on video, and then come to class for problem-solving exercises.

“That not only teaches them the content,” he said, “but they get experience doing skills that are important in business—like communicating with each other, critical thinking through a problem, learning how to present to others, working in the team. Those are very important business skills that you don’t pick up in a lecture environment. So we think that it’s helping us offer that high-impact student experience.”

Bowling Green State University Business School 

PHOTO CREDIT JAMES STEINKAMP PHOTOGRAPHY

A Collaborative Effort

The design process for the new business school started in 2014, a collaborative effort among BGSU and two design firms. On the university’s side, the team was a combination of people from capital planning, campus operations, and academic representatives (including the dean). The university teamed up with Chicago-based architecture firm Perkins&Will and the locally knowledgeable architecture and design firm The Collaborative to go through several iterations of plans.

Dean Braun explained that they wanted input from as many stakeholders as possible, including representatives from the faculty, staff, and students. “It was a very deliberate, methodical process to make sure we were vetting things with our key stakeholders as we worked through the design,” he said, “so the design took quite a while.”

Jessica Figenholtz, Associate Principal with Perkins&Will, recalls getting faculty input during one round of feedback. Her background is in higher education with a focus on learning environments, and she said she enjoys the process of going back and forth and encouraging clients to think differently about educational spaces and how they’re used. “We didn’t have anyone come down and say ‘You need to do this,’” she said. “It was like, ‘All right, let’s take you on a journey.’ And it’s through conversation with not just the dean, but with the faculty who use that equipment and have the curriculum, you know, having the conversation, ‘How can we think differently?’ How can your curriculum pivot or change, and what is the value or the benefit of it—and not saying we’ll get rid of it, but let’s think differently.”

Perkins&Will came up with nine different spaces—six offices and three collaboration spaces—to use as mock-ups or prototypes for faculty comment. They did surveys with students and faculties, took them on tours, did spot polling, collected input, and modified the designs accordingly on everything from the glass front to furniture arrangement to the proportions. The hands-on engagement with the community at large took some time, Connell said, but he said he attributes that input to why such a drastic change has proven so successful.

Bowling Green State University Business School 

PHOTO CREDIT JAMES STEINKAMP PHOTOGRAPHY

Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Design began in 2014, and construction started in 2018. The wheels of progress were spinning at full speed by the time the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. in 2020. The project was already so far along, said Dean Braun, that the coronavirus had a minimal impact on completing the building on time. Some of the factories that provide furniture and fixtures were unable to produce because they shut down, and social distancing requirements meant that fewer workers were allowed on site. In the end, these hiccups delayed the building’s opening by only two weeks—“which I thought was an amazing job by our construction group,” Braun said.

Following a dedication ceremony that was livestreamed on YouTube on Sept. 11, 2020, students, faculty and staff have settled into the building as much as social distancing will allow. Classrooms, collaboration spaces, and conference rooms all have COVID capacities; for example, classrooms built to hold 60 students currently hold only 20-22. Plexiglass panels for faculty have been installed. The technology built into classrooms allows hybrid classes—where part of the class is there in person and the rest are participating remotely—to run smoothly.

That said, Dean Braun noted that the building is almost always full to its COVID-reduced capacities. The shiny new facility draws students from all over campus, not just the business school, to come see what all the fuss is about. Bryan Schabel, design principal with Perkins&Will, described visiting the building during its first few weeks of operation. “I went right when they opened it up for students, it was the first couple weeks of class, which was interesting because people were sort of just like, ‘What’s the new thing? What is this place?’”

He laughed. “And it was interesting to see people engaged because really, the students weren’t using it day-to-day yet, but you could see a lot of visitors going into it. Particularly, there’s a great—there’s a terrace on the north end that has a great view of the new quad and the traditions quad. And it was interesting to see non-school-of-business students finding it and utilizing that.”

Connell said that the building’s variety of workspaces and open design made it easy to adjust the building’s use to campus COVID regulations. “There’s a lot of enclosed spaces, open spaces, nooks, crannies, back sides, front sides, light, dark,” he said. “That variety and those choices that the students have really let them find a space that they’re comfortable in… Because there was so much choice, people could find spaces that they’re comfortable in here. People come and they linger with other business students, or not, because they’re comfortable here.”

When Old and New Collide

One more crucial feature of the Maurer Center is that, even though it’s a brand-new building, it’s not a freestanding structure. It was built as a 50,000-square-foot addition to Hanna Hall, one of the old, traditional, original buildings on campus. One of the interior walls of the atrium is the former exterior of Hanna Hall, a deliberate design choice meant to celebrate the university’s past and to merge its past and its future. Hanna also serves as the business school’s administrative center, containing faculty and administration offices—as well as the dean’s suite.

“We really wanted to create a heart,” said Schabel. “And early on, we decided we wanted something that was not only open for the collaboration to happen within the building…but also invite people into the building and then increase the collaboration beyond just the School of Business. And that was important to them…how to make the balance between the old and the new.”

The new building’s construction also included a near-top-to-bottom renovation of Hanna Hall, originally completed in 1921. “We pretty much took it down to the slabs on every wall we could take out,” Schabel said. “In fact, we took out a wall that we probably shouldn’t have, but we did that on purpose.” He discussed how the team removed a critical structural wall, with no small amount of effort, “in order to create an axis that really responded to that formality of that historic building.”

Connell elaborated: “All new systems there, everything from windows down to the slab into the structure. So all interior partitions except around that historic central stair are new. All new mechanical, electrical systems, of course. It was brought up to full tech, new technologies.”

The dean’s suite lies on the second floor of the newly renovated Hanna Hall—not on the top floor, and not on the bottom, but in the middle, right in the heart of the new business school complex. His office overlooks the atrium from what Schabel said was one of the darkest but most accessible spots in the building. An existing rooftop was renovated to become almost a front porch to his office suite. “It’s not quite intimate, but there’s an intimate feel to it,” he said. “And I think that was a really successful use of the existing building that I really appreciate.”

Bowling Green State University Business School 

PHOTO CREDIT JAMES STEINKAMP PHOTOGRAPHY

The Business School’s Future

Because about 85% of business school students come to BGSU from in-state, the administration—from the university president down—wanted to focus on upgrading the nearly-50-year-old facilities into the 21st century, both aesthetically and functionally. The nationally ranked program got to the point where its capabilities and reputation had simply outgrown its old home, and the administration was looking for ways to stay competitive with its peers.

Due to the pandemic, Dean Braun said, they haven’t yet seen the uptick in enrollment that they were anticipating. Most students and faculty were away from campus during the fall; the normal recruiting process for new students has been inhibited; and social distancing prohibits large groups from passing through and touring the building. The events of the last year have left it something of an off-year for statistics, trends, and data, and the Dean admitted that it’s hard to generalize because it’s such an unusual situation.

“Those students who do come love the building and love the program,” he said. “So I don’t know if we’ll see a big uptick this year, but we fully expect it’ll impact enrollments moving forward.”

The building’s opening last fall marked the end of a six-year saga of planning, design, and construction. And now that it’s open for business—now that students and faculty have settled in, become familiar with the new facilities, and are using it day-to-day—the dean said the most rewarding part is watching the business school community as a whole settle into its new home.

“I really enjoy the openness, the transparency, the natural light,” he said. “Seeing all the faculty & students congregating throughout the building. Just makes you feel good about being in that environment.”

Figenholtz recalled watching a student who had been involved in some of the early programming efforts two or three years earlier giving a speech at the virtual ribbon-cutting ceremony in Sept. 2020. During planning, she said that even though the student wasn’t negative, it was the student’s first time going through the process—“She’s like, ‘Who are these crazy architects asking me all these questions of what I want?’ Students…they’ll tell you the truth. There’s no filter.”

During the speech, Figenholtz said, “To have her at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, and just expounding about how much of a home it is for her and for her colleagues, her peers, and how it’s connected her to the program and to the campus, it’s a part of her identity, and how she’s able then to feel really supported as she moves into the world. And when she was speaking, I was getting goosebumps. And we were all texting each other like, ‘Oh, my God, it was the best speech.’”

She said that positive feedback from the university and from Dean Braun is, of course, important, and a major testament to the facility. But she values such enthusiastic, positive feedback from a formerly skeptical student just as much.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Spaces4Learning.

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