Managing classroom space this fall

July 13, 2020
  • AACRAO Publications
  • Academic Scheduling
  • Records and Academic Services
  • covid-19
people in lecture hall

COVID-19 has dramatically changed the discussion around academic space. 

Prior to the pandemic, how institutions manage their physical space was already a fraught topic. 

“University space is not only a coveted resource but also one that engenders a wide variety of opinions and behaviors,” Junius Gonzales, New York Institute of Technology Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, writes in the AACRAO publication Managing Academic Space. “Allocation of space is one of the most passionately debated topics on campuses.”

Gonzales calls space a “strategic asset” that “requires careful management and rigorous revisiting given the dynamism of the environment.” And never has that been more true for institutions than now, as COVID-19 rendered millions of square feet of classroom virtually useless this spring.

This fall may see dramatic changes in space utilization. Classrooms may be at even more of a premium as physical distancing forces smaller and more spread-out classes, or it may be underused as schools move to hybrid and online classes. Classroom space is likely to be requisitioned, managed, and physically partitioned in ways no one imagined a year ago.

So how can institutions approach the daunting task of managing, allocating, and utilizing space during an ongoing pandemic?

The need for a “living” environmental scan

“As with any change initiative, clear and understandable data and information, repeated and consistent communication, ongoing stakeholder engagement, and patience are necessary,” Gonzales writes. A common frustration regarding space management is the lack of a routine and consistent inventory process. 

That’s why it’s essential to adopt and maintain an organized process for a dynamic, transparent, and accessible inventory of space, beginning with these questions:

1.  Does an inventory of university space exist? Is it understandable?

2. How often is the inventory conducted?

3. Who completes the inventory? Who sees it? Who communicates it?

4. What are the processes by which these data are gathered?

5. Is the space data repository easily accessible?

6. What external regulations (e.g.,fire code, accommodation and accessibility laws) have an impact on definitions and use of space?

7. Why is it this way? Some details related to the history that preceded current space allocation and utilization practices must be uncovered in order to initiate change.

The role of VPs, registrars, and big data in space management

The above questions come from the first chapter of Managing Academic Space, which is part case study of how the University of Texas at El Paso adopted and implemented best practices to manage competing academic space needs; part how-to book, with helpful reports, plans, policies, and procedures; and part guide.

Published in 2015, the book offers a comprehensive foundation for space planning on campus, including many resources and considerations that prove useful in today’s complex pandemic environment. 

Topics include: 

  • The role of the provost/vice president of academic affairs 

  • Establishing an effective “space committee” of vested institutional leaders—typically vice presidents who can clarify priorities and dispel conflict.

  • The critical role of the registrar in managing academic space—particularly in terms of outreach to facilities. 

  • How academic and facilities coordination works at the functional level.

  • Changing space culture through prioritizing data and institutional needs over oral traditions. 

  • How a scheduling office can effectively work with (not against) deans, department chairs, and faculty. 

  • Enacting an effective external/internal audit and/or assessment of overall academic space management.

  • The implications of big data, including degree audit systems, scheduling based on students’ course needs, and surveys of students’ commitments outside the classroom (e.g., work, family obligations, etc.).

That final bullet, and the last chapter of the book, particularly resonate at a time when hybrid (online/in person) learning models are becoming more necessary than ever. 

Learn more about Managing Academic Space.