Many students say that they make their final decision on which college or university to attend because "they know it when they feel it."
If great educational institutions are built through the perception created by the intersection of people, programs and facilities, it is a college's physical plant that creates the first -- and arguably -- most lasting impression. The buildings represent the visual statement of where the institution is and where it is headed. The physical plant is an expression of confidence, ego and ethos. It is a remarkable demonstration of institutional strength and failure, noble intentions, and significant planning mistakes. The physical plant is a primary admissions tool, a faculty and staff recruitment opportunity, and a statement of overall financial health.
Prospective students and their families visiting a campus see construction differently than faculty and staff who often complain about "construction fatigue" as summer brings on new waves of short-term building, rehabilitation, repurposing and cleaning added to the drama of ongoing major building projects. Families, however, look past the mud, clutter and noise. They see potential. They see momentum. An investment -- especially the right kind of institutional investment -- informs their decision about a college. Applicants make judgments in part by what they see. Alumni pride registers with "how the place looks" at reunions. Potential donors invest in well-executed master plans. The institutions that do best are those with the clearest sense of self.
The master plan is the visual statement of a dynamic strategic plan. As such, boards and senior higher education leadership should take great care in execution. It is never about building alone; instead, decision makers must blend an engineer's precision with an artist's eye. The best master plans, create, support and nurture an environment. A building without context -- measured by size and human scale, relationship to other buildings, institutional design principles, and landscape and site fit -- is a failure at whatever cost. In the end, it is the principles that support a master plan that matter most. The differences are important. The design principles should be historic, organic and widely invested in by the college's primary constituencies. In the best environments, the master plan never adjusts to or accommodates construction; rather, the building emerges from the master plan.
There is a need, therefore, to be careful with what you build. Buildings support the people and enhance the programs within them. They should meet the needs, anticipate the growth, and be developed with an eye to long-term expansion. Interiors should encourage interaction. Academic and residential "hearth" space creates human scale in what otherwise would be scattered clusters boxed together of faculty and staff offices, research laboratories and classrooms. Interior space should be flexible space -- beautifully embodied by the Shepley Bulfinch-designed Decker Quadrangle at Johns Hopkins University. Athletic complexes should promote college-wide wellness. When student athletes have better overall facilities than the student body generally, the "jockplex" created is a statement of what an institution values. Most important to master planning is the library -- dynamic, evolving and technology-driven -- that must be the beating heart of any growing institution.
Great master plans also support strategic plans because master plans visually embody change. They separate what is needed from what is wanted, sharpen institutional priorities, and shape donor requests. The development of master plans puts facilities into competition with people and programs for support. Academic leadership can sharpen and differentiate program offerings based on how the master plan incorporates priorities. Master plans shape out-of-classroom experience, using housing and student-wide campus social and cultural needs to shape and refine institutional ethos. They determine whether and where campus social life is centered. The results can have dramatic effects on retention and graduation rates, alumni support, and college ranking perceptions.
In the end, the best advice may be to avoid building until you create the foundation upon which sustainable construction should be based -- the campus master plan. In the words of Daniel Burnham, it is imperative that you "make no little plans." Build for the future by linking history to long-term needs. Use master planning to reinforce the institutional ethos and sense of self. Proceed with confidence, clarity and anticipate how an institution's strategic plan will change the dynamics and look of a college in twenty years. Use the master plan as an agent of change but the change prescribed should be organic, systemic and relevant to where an institution is headed. When the alumni return to claim that the "place feels the same" despite all of the changes, they have provided their alma mater with that most important metric for success -- you know it when you feel it.