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November 18, 2010

Budgets dwindle, but master planning goes on

  • WSU and other schools face tough decisions about growth, funding, technology and education. The roles of master plans are changing to meet their needs.
    Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas + Co.



    Washington State University campus stakeholders met with consultants in late October as part of an ongoing effort to update the master plan for the Pullman campus. WSU is one of many campuses throughout the United States that has decided the future is now.

    What's driving this trend? Change.

    In this era of shrinking state support for higher education, universities large and small are deciding that they must plan for the future in spite of today's budget climate.

    A recent report from the Society of College and University Planners (SCUP) notes, "Publicly supported institutions understand that reduced state budgets will affect them for many years into the future. Thirty-five states are assuming reduced fiscal resources will be available in 2010, while 42 states were forced to reduce their previously enacted 2009 budgets."

    As a result, campuses are looking for new revenue streams, new business models and increased efficiencies.

    Change drivers

    But the economy is not the only change driver. The enrollment boom that carried universities through the first decade of the 21st century is beginning to subside, meaning there is more competition for fewer students, while these same students are demanding more amenities from their college homes. Most of today's students have never shared a bedroom or bath.

    Image courtesy of Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas + Co. [enlarge]
    This model of Washington State University’s Pullman campus will be used to update its master plan.

    Fast-changing technology is driving a reassessment of how teaching happens. The student expectation of 2020 is to tap into learning from anywhere at any time of day.

    To remain competitive, universities are encouraging more interdisciplinary efforts by faculty, upsetting traditional hierarchies and causing a redistribution of space on campuses.

    "Space management is becoming a key area of concern, as no one wants the continuing operational costs of new construction," according to the SCUP report.

    Today's current economy also is forcing universities to exploit their economic development potential. How can they participate with private enterprise to develop new knowledge and leverage intellectual capital? This type of resource and expertise sharing can attract federal and private research dollars.

    New expectations

    There are added pressures for campuses to respond to climate change — WSU is a signatory of the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment, which calls for the member institutions to create a timetable to achieve carbon neutrality.

    This commitment has far-reaching implications, requiring transportation strategies, dining hall waste disposal and recycling, alternative energy development, building systems management, and best practices for domestic irrigation consumption, stormwater and regional hydrology.

    WSU master plan
    WSU is updating its master plan, a process it expects to complete by the fall of 2011. Background information and updates are available online at www.cpd.wsu.edu/campusmasterplan.

    Such pressures are causing universities to approach problems in new ways. Typically, a master plan articulates a long-range plan for the physical development of campus, aligning goals with strategic aspirations and academic outcomes. However, planning is not an isolated exercise, but a systemic evaluation of strategic planning, academic program planning, environment, land use, landscape and facilities planning.

    Effective plans suggest how to achieve the highest and best use of existing facilities, how to adapt existing buildings to accommodate 21st-century technologies and teaching styles, and how to phase work to manage financial resources. They help institutions decide how to grow and when to grow.

    Managing growth

    Some universities are asking for more than advice on land planning and future building sites. Some are asking for technology-assisted management tools or â"decision support systems." A sample system might enable them to cross reference databases on energy consumption and deferred maintenance, to enable university decision makers to evaluate a problem in a new way and extract a solution that would result in higher levels of efficiency.

    Perhaps more important, a good master plan supports the university mission in articulating ways to foster distinctive attributes and sense of place. It helps universities aspire to their full potential: If this is where we want to be, how do we adapt facilities and campus structure to get there?

    Early in his presidency, WSU's Elson S. Floyd challenged the university to become "a global, world-class land-grant institution," with the goal of becoming a member of the prestigious American Association of Universities, reflecting the university's commitment to invest in future aspirations.

    "Historically, the WSU campus has grown even during difficult economic times, such as the Great Depression and both world wars," said Darin Watkins, WSU executive director of external relations.

    "Growth comes at a cost, of course, but it is not something we can avoid or would even want to avoid. What this master planning process allows us to do is manage our growth in a way that creates the best outcomes for all of the university's stakeholders, while at the same time exercising the best control over our costs."

    Watkins said also that having a master plan for the campus is a frequent eligibility requirement for federal and private research grants and donations to the university, which at WSU typically amount to hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

    Conventional wisdom suggests that today's institutions of higher education must do with less. However, a university's mission doesn't change because of less funding. A solid master plan can help campus decision makers embrace the future. One institution's challenge is another's opportunity.

    Steven W. Gift is a principal and Buddy Hall is an associate principal at Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas + Co. The Norfolk, Va., firm has worked on more than 100 campuses throughout the U.S. and abroad.

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