Stop Trying to Plan the Campus for the Future

One of the big trends in policy journalism has to do with discussing college “in the future.” You know, when robot teachers instruct multiethnic superstar children in their bedrooms on Jupiter, or something.

We’re never quite sure what’s going to happen, but it’s pretty clear it’s going to involve a lot of amazing new technology.

Future

Sometimes institutions attempt to plan for this, and design buildings for technology that doesn’t exist. This is maybe stupid, suggests Avi Wolfman-Arent in the Chronicle of Higher Education; it’s maybe better to just let the college change as it needs to.

That’s what Cornell is trying to do on its new technology campus in New York City:

[Dan] Huttenlocher is certain his needs will change. As dean of Cornell Tech, a closely watched collaboration in New York City between Cornell University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Mr. Huttenlocher is overseeing the creation of an institution dedicated to technological innovation, academic experimentation, and the kind of serial flexibility those two principles require.

“My goal as the dean is to create an environment where everything can be repurposed,” Mr. Huttenlocher says.

He and his team are in the tenuous middle stages of planning and building exactly that: the chameleon campus, a space where interchangeability permeates everything.

It’s an odd project, trying to build a technologically up-to-date space two decades in the future when technology needs change faster than the carpet wears out.

Well, they’re trying anyway. So far this looks like not really planning much. As the article explains, much of this planning has to do with just having a lot of empty space that the institution can fill with whatever it needs, eventually.

The second, third, and fourth stories of the five-level structure are stunningly undefined, dominated by large, uninterrupted spaces. Classrooms? Faculty offices? The building will have little of the former and none of the latter. Instead there are “office zones,” which will be filled with workstations; those seeking some form of enclosure can enter a “huddle room,” “swing space, “collab” room, or “hub lounge.” The entrepreneurial patois, conspicuous as it sounds, reflects a real attempt to break down traditional academic boundaries.

“Huddle room,” “swing space, “collab” room, and “hub lounge” are, of course, meaningless tech jargon that is open to change at the direction of higher-level administrators, or new money. But it’s an interesting project, trying to build based on an awareness that a tech campus has to be able to change quickly, and relatively cheaply.

We, in fact, have campuses with all sort of archaic features like fireplaces in the dorms and particle accelerators under the football fields, smoking rooms in the libraries, extra-wide doors to accommodate hoop skirts, and slave quarters in the attics. This is part of what makes older campuses so much fun to explore.

As someone who went to college in a place a lot of pretty old buildings, I assure you it’s pretty clear that we adapt structures as we need them. We work around it, we renovate these things later for the campus we really need.

But leaving a lot of open space means it’ll be relatively inexpensive to adapt. Specific rooms for the day’s technology fads are pricey to remove.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer