The Politics of Academic Space

08/16/2016 09:54 am ET | Updated Aug 16, 2016

When I began my academic career at a historic Southern university, I recall being led to my new faculty office. My jaw dropped as I entered a spacious corner office in a building dating from well before the Civil War. Spying the majestic vaulted windows that overlooked the quad at the center of campus, I thought to myself, "I will never again have such a grand office."

That prediction remains true even after three decades and a succession of high-level administrative posts, including one as a college president.

I had been assigned such a swanky office as a fluke--a function of the dean's desire to support the university's new writing center, which I was to direct. Typically, such coveted spaces are reserved for senior professors or top administrators, not newly minted PhD's.

Space, as I soon discovered, is often bitterly contested on many college campuses. Senior professors jockey to be assigned larger offices as they become available, while junior professors are often relegated to dingy, windowless cubicles.

Departments also vie for space, competing for control over additional classrooms and offices. Even administrative divisions are not above attempting to wrestle valuable real estate from one another. Student-affairs and academic-affairs officers might squabble over whether a certain room should be used as a classroom or as a student social room, for example.

I know a biology department at one college where laboratory space is the object of a pitched battle. The department was fortunate to have hired a contingent of bright junior scientists who were conducting potentially groundbreaking research in a cutting-edge subfield. But those assistant and associate professors were relegated to small, cramped labs, while the senior professors, who worked in more traditional--and, some would say, less au courant--areas enjoyed spacious labs despite the fact that several of them had long ago abandoned active research. The dean was reluctant to intervene and reallocate lab space, fearing he would offend the powerful senior professors.

At another university, the faculty offices of a large, sprawling department were scattered randomly throughout three floors of a building. Consolidating the entire department onto one floor would make logistical sense, but that would have entailed relocating a small but influential department. It resisted, thus triggering a decade-long dispute.

And, of course, the perennial space dispute on practically every college campus is the one over parking--who gets to park where and for what reasons and at what cost. Parking spaces seem to be at a premium even more so than office and lab spaces. At some campuses, parking policy has become an explosive issue, the cause of petitions, senate resolutions, and public protests.

Clearly, space is a fraught subject in academe. At a conference for college presidents that I attended recently, a speaker asked the attendees to name their greatest challenge. Dealing with space issues was in the top three. As one frustrated president said, "I can raise millions of dollars from donors, solve complex problems in our infrastructure, and even mollify our restless faculty union, but I never seem to be able to conclusively solve our ever-present challenges involving the allocation of space."

While academic space is highly politicized, the ground of contestation is not solely the senior/junior-professor axis. Disciplinary politics often come into play as well. Faculty members at some institutions report that certain fields are perpetually discriminated against when it comes to assigning offices. More often than not, people in the humanities are the ones complaining about second-class treatment, although their colleagues in the social sciences are not far behind.

I remember years ago traveling to one of the nation's most prestigious technical institutions to spend time with a scholar who was a hugely influential language theorist. I passed by numerous modern, gleaming buildings before arriving at an old, poorly maintained building. The halls leading to his office were badly in need of paint, and in several places, a bare light bulb hung from a frayed wire. I was astounded that this celebrated intellectual was relegated to substandard accommodations, while science and engineering professors in adjacent buildings enjoyed state-of-the-art facilities.

It is understandable why this subject arouses such passions. Space is at the very core of our existence. As faculty members we spend our entire professional lives confined to modest-sized offices or laboratories, and in many cases we teach in the very same classrooms year after year. Administrators, too, are often consigned to narrowly circumscribed spaces. And this is precisely why space is so highly politicized on our campuses. In an economy of scarcity, a rare commodity will be fought over tenaciously.

To minimize the volatility over the issue, some officials have attempted to regulate the allocation of space. Some university systems, for example, have established specific standards: faculty offices and labs must conform to certain dimensions and square footage, regardless of the professorial rank or academic discipline of the occupants. Even the size and furnishings of administrative offices are proscribed: An associate dean's office will contain one small conference table of a certain dimension and four matching chairs, while a dean's office will be proportionally larger and contain similar furnishings plus a small sofa and armchair.

The advantage of such regulations is that they ensure fairness--avoiding such situations as the chemistry professor with an office twice the size of the art historian's, or the associate dean of fine arts who has a more majestic office than the engineering dean.

It is increasingly common, especially at large universities, for individual departments and colleges to develop formal policies specifying how space will be allocated--who is entitled to laboratory space, for example, and under what conditions. Here, too, the idea is to calm tempers by introducing a systematic approach for allocating the precious real estate on our campuses.

Often, space is an issue of concern or contention beyond the campus borders. Some institutions, especially in cities, are "landlocked," their boundaries so predetermined that the only way they can grow is up. That's why many institutions take every opportunity to acquire adjacent properties, even before a clear use for them is determined.

While space remains a politically fraught subject, academe is now experiencing an unprecedented reconceptualization of academic space. What once were "dormitories" (nondescript cement-block cells) are today well-conceived living spaces complete with lounges, living areas, and bedroom suites. Libraries, such as the one at my own college, are being reconfigured. At one time, "the stacks" were likely to constitute the central hub of the library and our experience of library space; now the center is likely to be an "information commons," complete with networked computers and lounge space for students.

Where the typical university building of a decade ago was dedicated to a single use--office space, or classroom space, for example--increasingly more campuses are now creating "mixed-use" buildings serving a number of functions. One university I worked for recently constructed a building that on the ground floor contains state-of-the-art classrooms and a modern food court; other floors contain administrative offices, and several floors are devoted to student residences. Another institution I worked for constructed a large parking facility with private retail establishments on the first floor. Such buildings redefine academic space in significant ways.

As administrators, we must be conscious of the politics of academic space. We need to be sensitive to the fact that many people measure their worth and self-esteem according to the offices they are assigned, and that much more is at stake than simply a place to work. Recognizing the fraught political realities might help us create policies and practices that are transparent and that ensure equity. And as colleges continue to redefine space in ways that are less "siloed" and more open and conducive to collaboration and interaction, perhaps we can redefine the very politics of academic space itself.

Note: An earlier version of this column appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education.