THE BLOG
01/22/2013 11:33 am ET Updated Mar 24, 2013

The Campus As Office: Thoughts on University Space

I have been thinking a lot recently about office space. As I transition from a deanship to faculty life, I am vacating a palatial office while entering my encore career as professor. My decanal office was originally occupied by the university president -- a fact I confirmed from the label on the basement fuse box -- replete with maple wood paneling, high ceilings, bathroom, refrigerator, a deep closet, private access, and space to house an oversized desk, conference table, couch, and cushioned seating for about 20. Were this in Manhattan, it would be larger than most apartments. Had I been more conniving, I could have rented it out to others as a side business. Had I been more playful, I would have had room to add a ping pong table for guests.

Humbled and a mite self-conscious in my environs, I confined myself to a corner of this office, and advertised the rest for use as an art gallery and for conference meetings. I held as many celebrations and receptions as I could possibly justify. The office wowed international visitors and helped in my negotiations with those who otherwise wouldn't know how to infer the stature of their host. These visitors helped furnish the room with the tchotchke they bestowed on me.

I also learned that social etiquette dictates that those with higher status stay put while others come to their office for meetings. It was sometimes lonely for me, and often sedentary. I tried to get out as often as possible, and used every excuse to visit colleagues elsewhere in the college.

Now, after a dozen years in that setting, I crave a more spartan and mobile existence. The modern university campus is a thriving city unto itself, with plenty of quality quiet and social space throughout. Since my institution is largely linear east-west on Boston's Charles River, where most of the buildings empty out onto one major street, it is easy for those who venture out to have impromptu encounters on the sidewalks.

My work world is mainly electronic -- and travels with me wherever I go. I equipped a room in my house to serve as my home base for those things still made from paper. I need a bit of dedicated space on campus with a computer station and printer, a few chairs to meet others, and a quiet place to hang out between commitments. My self-esteem has, thus far, remained surprisingly intact even without pompous surroundings.

Office space now seems more a luxury, and perhaps a relic of bygone times. Ubiquitous communications doesn't mesh with buildings configured in the last century around private offices guarded by receptionists and secretaries. Much is pretention -- having the biggest, the best view, the furthest from student traffic, the most ostentatious display of wall-hangings and books long since referenced. And much is the misuse of offices as an on-site sanctuary from others. Colleagues in nearby offices sometimes barely know one another. Those barricaded deny themselves the serendipity of chance encounters.

I don't understand why faculty (or anyone for that matter) would travel to their workplace only to isolate themselves from others. Though rationalized as a device for getting faculty to appear on their own campus, the irony is that traditional office space can inhibit interaction. Faculty are cloistered from one another in their individual boxes, and their departments further balkanize the campus by segregating faculty by discipline. A tangible test of departmental health is what happens in its corridors. Perhaps corridors should be widened and offices shrunk as incentives to mingle (a suggestion bound to incite a riot).

A possible dissertation study would be to measure the true usage of campus space -- offices, informal areas, as well as classrooms. Taking into account the compressed length of semesters, the average time students and faculty actually set foot on campus, and official holidays and weekends, university space lies fallow at least half of annual day time hours. While I am grateful for the heating, electrifying, and cleaning that occurs on our behalf, their costs seem extravagant in this age of massive student expenses and debt. There must be more frugal ways of demonstrating social hierarchy -- if this should even be sanctioned as part of university culture. Academic opulence is not only in questionable taste and functionality, but doesn't convey financial need to a skeptical public for charitable giving and tuition increases. Could we make do with less? Would a more fluid campus, with fewer walls insulating and isolating us, foster a greater sense of community?

Perhaps I am overthinking this, and more struck by my unique personal transition and surprising serenity with the change. I view the campus now as my work space -- and feel liberated from a cloistered office, and healthier and intellectually stimulated as I traverse the mammoth urban footprint of my institution. I can rationalize that my office is now far bigger than it was during my deanship.

Still, I do miss having my own bathroom.

Jay A. Halfond is a member of the faculty and outgoing dean of Boston University's Metropolitan College.

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