Campuses are far more than physical spaces (opinion)
Last summer, colleges and universities across the country sought to plan for the fall semester and make decisions about teaching and student life. An animating force behind all the conversations and strategy sessions was the notion of a campus.
At first blush, that might seem to be a painfully obvious observation. Of course, such discussions would include a consideration of the campus — it is the space that these institutions occupy. But scratching the surface of those conversations quickly revealed that a campus is much more than that. A campus is indeed a physical space, but it also embodies a host of aspirations that lie at the very heart of higher education. When we welcome students to campus, we are not just inviting them to traverse a piece of property. We are asking them to join us in an experience with contours and character that extend well beyond tangible spatial markers.
A year later, the scenarios are more optimistic. Some institutions are requiring vaccines. Those that aren’t are still projecting more of a face-to-face footprint going forward. As we prepare for people to return this fall — carrying forward all the lessons of the pandemic — we would do well to consider what we mean when we talk about a campus and say we are going to deliver a campus experience.
Campus as a space. The campus is certainly a physical space with at least some defined boundaries. As a consequence, it is a space subject to pandemic controls: masking, social distancing, sanitizing. Where vaccines are required, it will be a space further demarcated by certain expectations. All of this is in the service of allowing institutions to present the campus as a safe and protected place. But we should then also ask ourselves how our students inhabit this space — and what it means for how they experience instruction, classrooms and the overall college environment.
Campus as an intangible good. Much of the rhetoric that surrounded the lofty early plans about returning students to campus drew upon the intangible resonances that the word “campus” connotes. College and university presidents spoke of delivering a “campus experience.” This rhetoric evoked images of physical spaces (quads, greens, plazas), interactions (activity fairs, back-to-school gatherings) and services (dining, rec centers). The underlying assumption was that all these elements are good and necessary things for a complete college experience — and that their absence would result in a diminishing of that experience.
Campus as community. Campus is the place where you run into people. Yes, you can find those same people on Zoom, but it removes all serendipity from the equation. Campus is the space for unexpected conversations, for surprisingly seeing people you haven’t seen in weeks, for dropping into offices, for informally sharing meals. For many students, campus was and is literally home; it is where they live, eat, exercise and attend classes. For others, campus was and is a safe space to gather with other students and have reliable shelter and services provided.
Campus as nostalgic longing. Because the campus is a community, some people have felt its absence acutely. Absence has made the academic heart grow fonder. We’ve missed the sound of footfalls on the sidewalks and in the hallways of campus spaces. We’ve craved the familiarity of campus locales — the library, the coffee shop, the student lounge — and the routine of campus schedules. And students have definitely indicated that they miss campus. A survey conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse, and presented by Kaplan, of 2,000 undergraduates from 1,200 colleges and universities in March of this year revealed that almost half want to return to face-to-face classes, and another almost 31 percent said they never wanted to have a Zoom class again. And I suspect that both of these numbers may even have risen as some of the uncertainties of this spring have dissolved and campuses have committed themselves ever more vigorously to face to face operations. They — and we — are pining for contact, conversation, the free flow of ideas that don’t have to be mediated by online platforms, and the chance to share our space with others.
But the pandemic and the shift to remote operations have also upset all these ways of thinking about campuses. They have challenged us to consider how different populations use campus spaces. What, for example, are the differences between how residents and commuters experience our campuses? Further, a recent article raised a range of related questions about the optimal use of existing campus real estate and how best to prioritize and design classroom spaces.
Queries such as these should make us ponder the extent to which our campuses, as currently configured, serve their institutions and students in ways that they, in fact, should. As many as 79 percent of the students in the study I cited above indicated that they wanted lectures to be recorded, and around one-third want “online access to college support resources” like advising. I suspect that these are not only or simply preferences, but that lessons about access and equity are embedded in the responses. At the same time, we are discovering the ways in which campus can be an especially supportive environment for some students. For first-gen students, for example, it may offer them a space that supports and understands their aspirations. For others, it may literally be a safe space where they can learn, study and thrive without distraction or threat.
The task, then, is to reimagine our post-pandemic campuses, and two initiatives provide models and insights. The first is the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice and its much-needed attention on students’ basic needs for food and housing. Their recent report about students during the pandemic, based on the responses of two million students at 202 colleges and universities, is a must-read for everyone in higher education. While the core findings are about housing and food insecurity, the report also contains lessons about how we design our campuses going forward.
For example, almost half the students surveyed said that they didn’t access certain campus support systems for securing emergency housing and meeting other needs because they didn’t know they even existed. While a variety of factors undoubtedly inform this lack of knowledge, might the location of such services and their relative accessibility on campus play a role?
The second initiative is universal design for learning (UDL), which encourages educators “to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people.” From courses to assignments to the spaces in which teaching occurs, UDL seeks to create pathways, structures and opportunities for all learners to excel. It encourages the intentional and transparent communication of student learning goals and expectations. It also encourages flexibility and accessibility so that as many learners as possible can engage with course material in the ways that allow them to thrive.
One of the guiding principles of UDL is to “optimize relevance, value and authenticity.” For a course this might mean providing content that acknowledges the ages and abilities of participating students. It means providing “culturally relevant and responsive” activities. Translating this to the organization and life of our campuses might mean considering the kinds of student activities we offer — are we meeting all our students where they are experientially, or are we providing events and content that only speak to a small cross-section of students?
Embedded in both of these initiatives is a commitment to all students and their essential needs — a commitment our campuses should reflect. What if we asked how our campuses as physical spaces support basic student needs? These spaces should, of course, be physically accessible and compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act, but they should also be welcoming and conducive to the ways in which the full range of students want to gather and interact. Does the structure, arrangement and configuration of these spaces promote the meaningful interactions that students are hungering for when they say they miss being on campus? Recent research is encouraging us to examine how learning is a deeply embodied experience. How do our campuses — whether conceived as tangible physical spaces or more virtually — shape students’ embodied experiences of college more generally? What if we turned a critical eye to our campuses with these questions at the forefront of our examination?
A vital piece of creating campuses for all students should also include reimagining them as virtual spaces. If we are going to take seriously the lessons of equity and accessibility that the pandemic has taught us, then we must be willing to acknowledge that campuses are not limited to the real estate they occupy. During the pandemic shutdown, student organizations, student life offices and various other support services creatively found ways to provide continuity of service and opportunities for engagement online. If we simply insist that all operations will move back to the physical campus and only be accessible there, we will have missed an opportunity and we will unduly penalize those students who have good reason to prefer having some of these things available remotely.
Many people are calling for our emergence from the pandemic to be a reckoning. For those of us in higher education, it should start with the very spaces and sites that house our aspirations for, and commitment to, all our students and their well-being.
Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt is dean of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Honors College, Mandel Professor in Humanities, and a professor of history at Cleveland State University. She blogs about issues in higher education at Tales Told Out of School and tweets at @school_tales.
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