A common concern among campus facilities directors has long been not having a seat at the table of top institutional officials. But COVID-19 created an immediate shift to prominence for these professionals.
Pete Zuraw of Gordian, publisher of the annual State of Facilities in Higher Education Report, recalls one facilities leader at a Midwestern university announcing he was finally at the head of the table—but he quipped, “I’m the only one at the table because everyone else has gone home.”
Across the country, people not normally consulted about institutional decisions found themselves with leadership roles in COVID response efforts, says Zuraw, who spent nearly 20 years in campus administrator roles and is now vice president of market strategy and development at Gordian. His advice: “You’ve demonstrated you can be viable contributors to the life of the institution. Don’t give up that seat.”
Lander Medlin and other leaders of higher ed facilities and planning organizations see the need to rethink the framework for collaboration—“taking that newfound facilities relevance and getting the senior institutional officers team to think about facilities not as a lagging response but as a leading planning element,” says Medlin, president and CEO of APPA (formerly the Association of Physical Plant Administrators). In other words, facilities leaders shouldn’t just be brought in to execute building projects after details have already been determined. How can the whole team make the campus a better place? Place matters, Medlin adds, because students think it matters.
Summing up the latest Student Voice survey, which asked 2,000 college undergrads about their impressions and experiences within facilities as well as outdoors on campus, Medlin says, “They get aggravated and annoyed when things are not as they should be. Place can be a recruitment tool, or it can be the thing that turns people off.”
The survey, conducted in mid-October by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse and presented by Kaplan, captured student opinion on the quality and condition of campus facilities, including how building discomforts are impeding learning. Some highlights include that:
- At least half of students say libraries, academic buildings, classroom and lecture hall spaces, rec centers and gyms, the student center, and lawns and athletic fields are generally in excellent condition. Just under half see research labs as excellent, while only one-third view arts and performing spaces as excellent. In terms of which facility types are in poor condition, 42 percent feel that none are, with classrooms and lecture halls getting the top poor rating, 29 percent.
- An overwhelming majority of students, 94 percent, would rate the overall cleanliness of campus facilities as very (44 percent) or somewhat (50 percent) clean. However, unclean restrooms ranked second out of 19 possible facilities problems students have noticed, with 39 percent of respondents dishing the dirt about that issue.
- Three of the top four facilities problems noticed involve building temperatures, with inconsistent classroom temps from building to building being identified by 39 percent of respondents and other issues being consistent too hot or too cold classroom temperatures and inconsistent classroom temps within individual buildings.
- Three in 10 students agree that poor maintenance, cleaning or general building conditions on campus have impacted their ability to focus and learn at least somewhat. That increases to more than half when filtered by students who identify leaky roofs, maintenance requests that get put off or ignored, or furniture or fixtures appearing broken as specific facilities problems on campus.
Impressions and Impact
Joel Frater, who serves on the Society for College and University Planning Council, has seen how campus design, including functionality and flexibility, links to retention. Environments that are conducive to learning and community building help keep students enrolled. That goes for buildings and their surroundings, says Frater, dean of student services at Rochester General College of Health Careers. “When there’s proper upkeep of our lawns, the aesthetic value rises.”
At adult-serving or nonresidential colleges like his, creativity and comfort in common space design choices are especially crucial because students spend time between classes there. That’s what led him, in a previous role, to bring furniture into a new space with “sit on me and tell me what you think” signs, with the winning style getting purchased. Frater has noticed students taking ownership of common areas, making comments such as “this is my corner” or “these are my seats” to indicate they feel at home there.
Whether it’s building something new or redesigning existing space, Frater also advocates for nimble spaces. “The more permanent brick walls we put up, the more difficult it is to move them,” he says.
Asked to assess general building quality across campus, more than half of Student Voice respondents believe buildings seem well maintained, with about equal numbers from those at two-year colleges (n=250) and four-year colleges. Community college students are 10 percentage points more likely than their four-year peers to say buildings look modern, while four-year college students are about twice as likely at those at two-year colleges to say building quality depends on what academic programs are housed there.
No one—student or professor—wants to spend most of their time in a dilapidated building. A student at a liberal arts college in Georgia described its arts building as being “in a serious state of disrepair. Classrooms on the first floor have leaking ceilings, the basement floods and the temperature control is nonexistent.”
Another respondent, from a public university in Nebraska, commented that students in the arts and sciences buildings “are dealing with some of the worst of the classrooms on campus while simultaneously having the most credit hours and a high number of enrollees.”
Surface and air cleanliness have certainly been top of mind for higher ed institutions through the COVID era—and with only 6 percent of survey respondents rating campus buildings over all as not too, or not at all, clean, it seems that efforts are noticeable. Men and women are equally likely to report facilities seeming very or somewhat clean.
Zuraw sees the good marks as remarkable, particularly for traditional-aged college students. “While most of them have a high tolerance for filth in their own spaces, cleanliness of shared spaces has been top of mind these last couple years, and the schools must be doing a tremendous job to meet the new elevated expectations,” he says.
That’s not to say students don’t spot problems, such as with restrooms, the discomfort issue that stood out nearly as much as temperature problems. “Bathrooms are so difficult,” says Medlin from APPA. “I’m not sure that any institutional types will get fantastic remarks on bathrooms.”
Lilly Hutton, currently completing the extra-semester, tuition-free Take Five Scholars Program at her alma mater, the University of Rochester, notices inconsistencies in cleanliness on campus but acknowledges “there’s a lot of space to cover.” She describes the libraries, for example, as very clean, but some shelves and study spots have been dusty. And while some lecture halls are “nice, clean and new,” she can think of at least one classroom where dirt is visible under desks and she’s careful about where to sit.
One survey respondent from a public university in Arkansas was less forgiving: “Lots of lecture halls and classrooms are just filthy. Hair and dirt on seats, desks and floors. It gets to the point where I won’t sit in a chair … or I won’t put my backpack on the ground.”
Care about the air has also come to the forefront. “There’s a heightened sensitivity since COVID,” says Frater, adding that it used to be the type of conversation only facilities staff would have. Now there’s raised consciousness about topics like HEPA filters.
Yet, when asked about classrooms having enhanced air filtration devices that can help reduce viruses and other contaminants, more than half of Student Voice respondents weren’t sure if they are being used. Twenty-seven percent, meanwhile, believe all or most classrooms are equipped with extra filtration.
Measures like visible air purifiers in a room might be comforting and seem like an indication of cleaner air, but such devices are “a secondary treatment, with many institutions doing that within the mechanical systems themselves,” says Zuraw. He’s not surprised so many students are unaware of whether enhanced air filtration is a measure in place. “Most students don’t even know there’s someone who will fix their leaky faucet; they’re just completely oblivious,” he adds.
Still, says Medlin, students will have a gut feeling “when something doesn’t smell right, something doesn’t look right or people are getting sick.”
Professors are more likely to be asking questions about air quality, in Michael Alfano’s experience as dean of the college of education at Sacred Heart University. He recalls daily meetings early in the pandemic when whoever was in charge of each space would provide an update on filter changes and air flow.
As noted, various classroom temperature issues emerged as top facilities concerns for survey respondents. An Ohio private university student is unhappy with HVAC decision-making. “They blast the AC in the summer and everyone gets to class and is freezing, but they blast the heat in the winter when students are dressing warm,” the student wrote, adding that some students wear shorts under pants so they can switch to just shorts once inside a building.
Professors acknowledging such issues can be quite powerful, says Alfano, also vice provost for strategic partnerships at Sacred Heart. “It just demonstrates allyship, that we’re all in this together.” He likes to hear about professors demonstrating a can-do mind-set. A faculty member might say, “I’m going to figure out why the thermostat is stuck on 85 together and will address it before the next class; I’ll send you a quick email to update you on what to expect.”
In Hutton’s experience at Rochester, professors have opened windows when it’s too warm so students taking an exam won’t have difficulty focusing. She knows that for some classrooms, wearing layers is important, while for some others, she’ll always need a sweater.
A student at a public university in Georgia lamented about “inconsistent temperatures throughout the school of music [that] makes it harder to play in tune consistently … On some floors I’m almost shivering and on others I’m sweating while playing my instrument.”
Another student, from the same university, wrote, “This is not a college for disabled people”—citing too-narrow restroom stalls meant to be wheelchair accessible; slow and cramped elevators; and the campus layout being “very clearly form over function, so traversing campus is inconvenient in many places for abled people, let alone those who rely on mobility aids.”
Survey respondents from two-year institutions were nearly four times as likely as those from four-year institutions to not identify any of the 19 options as being problems, 47 percent compared to 12 percent.
Other problems noted in open-ended question responses included the lack of outlets for charging devices, mold issues, odors and pest infestations. One student at a private university in New Jersey has come to this conclusion: “Every building outside of business and engineering needs to be torn down and rebuilt.”
Discomforts Impeding Student Success
“Constantly disrespected and never maintained” is the way one student at a private Florida-based university sums up issues. The respondent added that “an ongoing mold issue in housing and most classrooms … is a health hazard and makes me get sick often, which causes me to miss classes.”
Do students who grew up in or currently live in apartments or other housing that’s not well maintained notice issues in campus buildings either more or less? Frater, from Rochester Regional, says it depends. “Sometimes the campus is an escape. If the place you’re escaping to is as bad as the place you are escaping from, it doesn’t help you psychologically. On the other hand, students may look at [a campus building] and say, ‘I’ve seen worse.’”
In a similar vein, with different learning styles or abilities, some students will be overstimulated by issues in classrooms such as flickering lights. One survey respondent noted the buzzing of lights being a distraction and another mentioned how fluorescent lighting “hurts my head and makes it hard to learn.”
In Zuraw’s experience working with colleges, discussion about neurodiversity and needed accommodations is widespread, not just in disabilities services offices but also in facilities departments elsewhere. But the most common solutions involve “incremental gains around one student,” he says. “It doesn’t feel like a comprehensive approach.”
Campus discussions about facilities planning and addressing facilities issues so that they don’t inhibit learning can include research that connects the two. “There’s more than ample evidence that environment is correlated with learning outcomes,” says Alfano.
But such research needs to be more widely known. Alfano sees “an opportunity for all of us to understand how parts of our organization work. Like a tapestry, if you pull a little thread, it’s going to throw the whole thing off.” Campus facilities professions, he says, can better understand the learning piece, and those on the academic side can better understand the many deliverables facilities is expected to produce over the course of a year.
The Work Order Pileup
Over her time at Rochester, Hutton has put in requests for facilities, such as reports that buildings are too hot or too cold, and gotten satisfying results. But it seems, she says, “I’m one of the few students who knows that’s something you can do. Most people just go the whole semester with the problem.”
Zuraw at Gordian has noticed students not reporting building issues but thinks it’s more than a lack of awareness. “Early in my career I thought facilities needed to shout louder,” he says. “I have come to accept that students are in their own head. I’ve seen it, witnessed it with my own children. You can tell them and they just don’t hear. They’re focused on something else, like coursework and friends.”
Whether it’s work on existing buildings or new construction projects, campus facilities professionals must be aware of potential impacts on those who are teaching, learning, living or working on a campus. Steps to take involve communicating about what to expect and making plans to mitigate impacts.
“If there’s ever going to be maintenance or construction that disrupts the student experience, I’m big on impact statements in the planning process,” says Alfano. “Things can be done organizationally to limit the amount of disruption.”
That could mean working with a centralized scheduling administrator to find another place for a class or meeting during a painting project, or informing professors that a particular class session may be interrupted by noise so they can avoid, for example, scheduling an exam during a week there will be blasting outside the window.
“Students just want to know what’s going on ahead of time,” Alfano says. “Good leadership can get ahead of it.”
“I can guarantee you every residential life organization is telling students, ‘This is what you do when there’s a problem,’” he adds.
At the University of Washington, Josh Gana does see a lack of awareness on the part of students that they can have things repaired. “Or they’re worried they’ll get charged for something they don’t want to get charged for,” says Gana, director of operations for housing and food services. “We’ve worked hard to develop student leaders and facilities managers to help provide direct feedback on things that come up year to year—some of the bigger trends that might not come up in a specific work order.”
Student satisfaction surveys have also helped. Several years ago, his team discovered one residence hall had much lower satisfaction on cleanliness than other housing. “It was a facility with a number of triples added to it without an increase in custodial staff. We added a second round of cleaning in those buildings each day,” says Gana, who is also the facilities and physical environment director for the Association of College and University Housing Officers–International. A student isn’t going to put in a work order to report that a hallway bathroom is dirty, but the survey uncovered the issue so it could be fixed.
Gana advises that higher ed institution leaders “look at how easy or hard it is to report a maintenance issue. The harder it is, the less likely you’ll have a report made.”
Also, legacy maintenance systems may need to go. “We’ve seen trending toward good online reporting, but I would not be surprised if there are still paper models out there.”
When residential students learn to report issues, they’re one step closer to success in life after college, too. “Part of our mission is to help students become more independent and develop life skills to live on their own after college,” Gana explains.
Communication about prioritization is another important piece. “To a student, their issue is a top priority,” says Gana. Issues about availability of staff and work order backlogs aren’t typically understood.
And they are widespread issues. Data from Gordian, which tracks growing campus facilities backlogs and related issues of aging facilities and the shrinking facilities workforce, shows that “even the best institutions are overextended,” says Zuraw. “Some are better than others, and some look awesome but have roofs that are close to leaking or other elements that are struggling.” Facilities professionals may be the only ones aware that what seems fine is not in great shape.
As Medlin from APPA points out, “We keep all of these buildings, and they all require maintenance to keep them from falling in on themselves.” She advises that facilities professionals establish close ties with administrators across campus, including housing officers, enrollment managers and development officers, to become more aware of institutional priorities and involved in planning. “If you want to be part of the planning process, you have to be out there, communicating the value of these facilities.”
Zuraw suggests adjusting dialogue about problems to include impacts to the core business of education. Rather than pleading for money because a building system part is broken, he says, “Talk about the fact that ‘We run the risk of not meeting the needs of our students and researchers.’ Talk about the impact to program.”