Reimagining College Campuses

Brown University President Christina Paxson (quoted in this article in The New Yorker magazine) says college campuses need to reopen in the fall. “One of the reasons Paxson believes we need to open schools is that many of them are heading toward financial disaster. … Heavily dependent on tuition, and uncertain that online courses will attract or retain students, many institutions anticipate a loss of revenue so large and precipitous that they fear they may have to close.”

Actually, it feels to me like money is the main motivation for the push. Which is crazy; how do the high-end colleges suck so much money and are still so strapped? (Sort of like the airline industry and other big corporations, huh?) The other day I read somewhere that Harvard has an endowment of forty BILLION dollars. Billion with a B. And probably Brown and other Ivies have hefty endowments as well.

This is crazy! We are looking at a giant money-suck. It seems to me that something about the design of our campuses and our whole approach to school needs to change.

I got this idea that maybe campuses could turn into a hybrid, de-coupling the classroom learning function from the residential function. Dorms could become apartments available to anyone. Students enrolled in that college could live there on campus, or take classes remotely, from their homes anywhere in the world. People living in the dorm-apartments could be taking classes at that university, or not.

Colleges with high-tech facilities such as labs could rent space out to corporations, or to anyone. Schools with nursing programs could turn some of their dorms into actual care facilities: eldercare living and so on. College cafeteria kitchens could be taken over by culinary trade-schools, and offer café service not only to students but to the general public as well.

For students choosing to physically live on campus, they would be living amidst people of various generations and economic classes. More of a real-world life, in other words.

In such a free-form setup, universities might face new challenges: How would an institution maintain its branding; its unique identity? Humans are creative and would figure out ways.

As a permaculture designer, I pretty much see the world in terms of design challenges. Since our “higher learning” system is sucking massive amounts of money (while turning out massively indebted graduates), it’s an opportunity for creative re-tooling. As part of this, we could look at how the Europeans do it. My friend’s son attends college in Germany for free. It’s a highly selective system; not just anyone gets in — but if you do, it’s tuition-free (taxpayer-funded).

Just some musings. What are your thoughts on this? What else would you add? And has the pandemic got you musing about any retoolings of other hallowed institutions? Do tell!

And, to circle back to the New Yorker article I cited above, the main idea of that article was that public universities such as the CUNY system (which offer a path to upward mobility for the poor and working-class people who constitute the bulk of their student body) offer incredible value and are highly worthy of public support. The article is titled “The Pandemic Is the Time To Resurrect the Public University.” I concur, and that’s saying a lot given my libertarian leanings!

To quote the closing sentence of this article by Corey Robin, “Public spending, for public universities, is a bequest of permanence from one generation to the next. It is a promise to the future that it will enjoy the learning of the present and the literature of the past. It is what we need, more than ever, today. Sending students, professors, and workers back to campus, amid a pandemic, simply because colleges and universities need the cash, is a statement of bankruptcy more profound than any balance sheet could ever tally.”

Yes, indeed. (By the way, Robin is a professor at CUNY.)