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What We Learned From The Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Rethinking Campus Spaces” Webinar

4/05/21 -

The chronicle of Higher Education partnered with Occuspace for the “Rethinking Campus Spaces” Webinar exploring how university leaders are reexamining the use of their physical campus spaces to respond to the pandemic and for future needs.

Chronicle of Higher Education Webinar Cover Image

Hosted by Francie Diep, a Senior Reporter at the Chronicle, with panelists:

  • Vi San Juan, Assistant Vice Chancellor Capital Planning Design & Construction at Cal State University
  • Christopher McConnell, Director, Facilities Planning & Construction at University of Alaska Anchorage
  • Sara R. Boyer, Associate Principal & Project Architect at Moody Nolan


Here are our main takeaways from the session:

Flexibility is Key

Having flexible spaces that are easily transformable to meet the needs of students and faculty is essential as universities prepare for the return to campus. Although higher education historically has sided more with the traditional forms of teaching, the pandemic forced institutions to adapt and advance technologically. There was an emphasis on the fact that virtual and hybrid classes will remain as alternate forms of teaching for students who have unconventional schedules, such as working professionals and commuters.

That being said, as we round the corner of this pandemic, universities are figuring out how they are going to accommodate students and faculty back in campus spaces like libraries, classrooms, and office spaces while maintaining health and safety guidelines. Multi-function classrooms have become a focal point. Adding moveable furniture instead of fixed seating like in traditional lecture halls will make it easy for faculty to spread out seating to maintain social distancing. This also offers the opportunity for classrooms to double as both lecture halls and lab classrooms - something a few of the California State University System schools are currently piloting.


Relying On Technology To Use Spaces More Efficiently

The panelists all agreed and highlighted the idea that technology has been pivotal in how universities have not only responded to the pandemic but to how they will operate in the future.

Besides the obvious of faculty and staff getting accustomed to the use of virtual classes, scheduling through apps and portals has become the norm. Christopher McConnell from the University of Alaska Anchorage noted that they are using an app to schedule classroom time. Vi San Juan, from the CSU System, added how the library, health center, and advising appointments are being made in the same way virtually.

Universities are also looking closely at building occupancy levels to better understand their spaces and how they are used. With budget cuts and lower enrollment rates due to the pandemic, universities are looking for ways to save money. By tracking building occupancy, universities can make educated decisions on future property purchases or sales. The University of Alaska Anchorage says they are leasing out offsite properties as a source of revenue and moving those offices back to the main campus. In addition, institutions are looking to reduce energy costs by knowing which spots of, for example, the library, seem to be repeatedly vacant.

"We certainly track our utilization of space, and report on density to the board. Typically, there is an annual request where we show how we are using our space in the best ways."- Christopher McConnell , Director, Facilities Planning & Construction at University of Alaska Anchorage


Student-Focused Models

As students continue to return to campus, universities are prioritizing their needs first. When the pandemic first hit, the panelists talked about how they took a step back to think about their students and community’s basic needs.

Vi talked about how the CSU System made sure that education was accessible for everyone at home by supplying laptops and wireless hotspots to those who did not have access to the necessary online learning tools. Sara Boyer from Moody Nolan spoke to how there has been a cultural change when thinking about mental health, and the overall wellbeing of students is at the forefront of a lot of conversations.


The Pandemic Put Into Perspective What People Care About

Our final key takeaway is one that many people can probably relate to, but it’s that the pandemic really put into perspective what people care about. Facility features like better ventilation, fresh air, and natural lighting are more highly valued for universities today than ever before.

Vi and Christopher both agreed that air balancing systems, for example, would never have been prioritized previously as they are today, and gone are the conversations about the aesthetics of a space for conversations about new air filtration and electrical systems to accommodate continued online learning capabilities.

Most of all, the pandemic has expedited trends that were already happening. Traditional by nature, universities were forced to make rapid systematic changes, adapting to using new technologies to enhance online learning and facility management for today and the foreseeable future.



These were our key takeaways from the March 31 webinar, but if you’d like to watch the full event yourself, here is the link to the recorded session.

Contact us to learn more about how Occuspace is helping universities across the country provide safer on-campus spaces for students, faculty, and staff.



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