Friday, May 26, 2006


"It's Only Temporary"

“It’s Only Temporary” is one of the great lies of academia. It’s right up there with the check that’s in the mail, the paper that was on the disk that crashed, and the dead grandmother.

With various construction and renovation projects in process and/or on the horizon, I’ve had to take very close looks at our space utilization recently to see what can be moved where to accommodate everybody over the next couple of years. In looking at what goes where, I’ve spotted several very weird uses of space. When I’ve asked people in the relevant departments why the arrangements are what they are, the answer is always the same: it was designed as a temporary solution x years ago (usually ten or so), and nothing better has come along since then.

This isn’t unique to higher ed. The K-12 system is rife with trailers that were set up as temporary overflow space, and that never went away. Some other colleges nearby set up trailers to handle the influx of baby boomers, and the trailers are still there. I have a theory that when the nukes come, the only things to survive will be cockroaches and trailers.

Most of the problem boils down to budgeting. With a chronic lack of resources, we resort to a ‘triage’ approach, since we don’t have the funding to tackle the entire system. When a temporary patch is put in place, that particular issue is no longer at the top of the triage list, and the temporary patch becomes de facto permanent. Over time, the patches pile up, and the overall picture becomes progressively less rational. Then when we actually have to do a major overhaul, the process is much more arbitrary than it should be, because we just don’t have the slack in the system to move stuff around cleanly.

To make matters worse, a real solution (as opposed to a patch) would require a substantial percentage increase in a budget from year to year, which is anathema in this political climate.

Student demand for class times puts some weird constraints on sharing facilities. Plenty of classrooms are empty in the mid-to-late afternoon period, but you can’t buy space around lunchtime. So we’re in the weird position of having both a space shortage and lots of open rooms at the same time. We’ve tried offering more classes during the unpopular times (4:00 in the afternoon, or anytime on Friday), but students simply refuse to sign up for them. Since most of our students have off-campus jobs, they need to be out of here fairly early in the day (or not start until the evening), or they can’t pay their freight. So what looks on paper like an obvious efficiency gain, isn’t.

As technology gets more sophisticated, it also gets more specific. Labs that may once have been multi-purpose have grown specialized, simply because they had to. That creates a need to carve out more lab space from a static total, putting a squeeze on general-purpose classrooms. Dedicated labs (other than Nursing) are empty for more hours per week than regular classrooms, making matters worse. (Nursing is full pretty much all the time.)

Churchill’s old saw about democracy – the worst system, except for all the others – pretty well describes most of these temporary patches. They’re ugly, they’re barely acceptable, they don’t really make sense, but when you try to pick them apart, you discover constraints you didn’t even know existed. Yes, it’s odd to share that lab between those two programs. But you can’t move either out (for lack of a place to put it), and anything else you’d move in would generate nasty scheduling conflicts.

Ironically, the one thing that really is temporary is faculty. As budget constraints push us to a more adjunct-heavy faculty, we see much more semester-to-semester turnover in instruction. This strikes me as backwards, but there it is. Instructors come and go, but trailers are forever.

I've been in a "temporary" office for 2 years. The classroom I manage was put in a "temporary" space and I was supposed to be able to overhaul it this summer. Squatters (librarians) took the space over and now it's not mine any more. Our building is supposed to be remodeled next summer and I'll be moved to another "temporary" space. I'm beginning to think, like your adjuncts, that I myself am temporary.
Have you considered offering discounts to students who sign up for classes held at unpopular times? It might be a way of both reducing costs for those students trying to save money the most, while also making good use of the currently-unused space. Sure it'd cost money to offer discounts, but if it relieved the space pressure, it could save money too...
At the boarding school where my spouse works, I live in a trailer that was used as a temporary science lab when the science building was remodeled and then as a music classroom when the arts center was constructed. We have lots of counter acreage with many, many outlets for all our Bunsen burners. Really, the place isn't so awful aside from the shoddy construction. And it's a free, non-dorm apartment.

Anyhow, just thought I'd share. Your post struck a particularly personal chord for me. We've been here for four years this month -- I'd say you're entirely right: this patch is permanent.
I'm teaching in what looks like 4 conjoined double-wides this summer.
Oddest thing? they all have the brandy-new "smart classroom" techology.
I can't decide if I win or lose.
I work in a building that was considered "temporary." In the 1960s. Every 5 years or so someone makes noises about "you're going to get a new building soon -- hang in there."

No one even believes it any more, except for the new faculty recruits. (Suckers.)
The Dallas Community College District (there's another C in there somewhere but for the life of me I can't remember what it stands for...) has created a tuition level based on peak attendance where students taking classes in the middle of the afternoon pay less than those trying to still work and attend morning or evening classes. They also offer some early morning classes for the benefit of working students. In addition, DCCCD and University of North Texas have some extensive online schedules which often include graduate courses. As to the buildings themselves, I am torn. Yes I have seen aging decrepit buildings, and many of them are used not just for offices but as student housing. There's one facility that I think a Hazmat team will have to blanket the area with masks because of the potential mold and asbestos content when they finally demolish it. Even maintenance admits that once a facility is paid for they often opt to avoid any expensive overhauls of old buildings. This leaves students in housing that is pretty substandard. It seems a little strange to raise tuition and then turn around and build new auditoriums and football stadiums when housing and classroom and lab space is at a premium, but then again, most wealthy alums don't want their names on a science building.
Laustic, I never thought of outfitting my kitchen with bunsen burners. Tygon tubing for the dishwasher drain line is the closest I can offer.

In the 1990s, my graduate school alma mater ultimately demolished the temporary trailers that were built in the 1940s. Everyone was surprised to see it happen.

One suggestion for finding appropriate temporary space is to ask facilties staff members who are low on the org chart. A colleague in a department with few wet chemistry resources (sinks, hoods, etc) was searching for a lab to convert, and the only viable suggestion came from a university-wide plumber who remembered yanking out the sinks, hoods, etc. 10+ years earlier. The pipes were still in the walls, so reinstalling water and air lines was straightforward.

Perhaps faculty are temporary, but staff members sometimes truly are permanent.
At MIT a temporary lab was built during WW II for weapons research--lots of the development of radar happened there. When I showed up in Cambridge in the 1970s, the wooden building, still in active use, looked pretty seriously out of place among the'tute's concrete and glass modernism. But a sentimental attachment had developed, and there was some talk of having it declared a historic site.

Don't know how that came out.

Perhaps the best example of institutionalizing "it's only temporary" is the WW II emergency rent control in New York City. That's been one very long emergency.
On the other hand, "temporary" trailers in light colors, large windows, newish furniture and equipment and with good heaters and air conditioners can sure beat a regular lecture room in a 40+ year old building with lousy airflow, flaking paint, asbesthos tiles drooping from the ceiling and that haven't seen a renovation since it was built.

Don't diss it out of hand.
Where I went to graduate school, our building had mortar problems: bricks were falling from the 6th storey roof. (The building was only about 20 years old.) The "temporary" solution: put up a fence around the building so no one would be standing under said bricks.

That was six years ago.
Making afternoon classes cheaper might work, but it will end up benefiting most the students with the most flexible schedules - probably those that don't have to work. So it seems kind of backwards/unfair.

...not that I have a better idea!
why don't you do a survey to find out why students are not signing up for the afternoon classes? not that you'll get anything like the total picture, but the answers you do get might help suggest a solution re scheduling.

the university of california at berkeley is a huge institution, and pretty well-known, right? some of the housing for "married students" was built as "temporary housing" for workers at WWII shipyards nearby. it was meant to be torn down after the war, but is still in use after all these years.
Where I work, FIU (fallen ivy university), the campus is a hodge-podge of 19th century buildings, 1960s monstrosities (my office), and WWII quonset huts (sp?). The tried and true mechanism on coping with space shortages is to cut the slices of the piece ever so much smaller.

We're down-sizing to greatness yet again.
Jim Gust: At MIT a temporary lab was built during WW II for weapons research... When I showed up in Cambridge in the 1970s, the wooden building, still in active use, looked pretty seriously out of place ... But a sentimental attachment had developed, and there was some talk of having it declared a historic site.

Don't know how that came out.

I was going to mention MIT Building 20, but you beat me to it... Building 20 housed the MIT Radiation Laboratory in WWII and had, um, interesting features like exposed power wiring running just under the ceiling. But it was home to many of the most interesting organizations and developments at MIT, including Amar Bose' acoustic studies, the Tech Model Railroad Club (which was the home-away-from-home for the original MIT computer hackers), the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, and my own group, the Electronics Research Society.

Alas, Building 20 was demolished several years ago to make room for a fancy new Bill Gates-funded computer science building, and TMRC, ERS, and all the other wonderfully eccentric inhabitants displaced to new and far less historic (and convenient) quarters. There's a memorial web site, though...
"It's only temporary." That's what they said about a "temporary" freshman dorm building at my alma mater (Saint Joe's) -- it's now going on 20+ years, and sure enough, the whole building's still there!
It truly baffles me why colleges, places of higher learning and thought, are so backassward. Faculty are reduced, shuffled, adjunct-ized while administration and athletic buildings get bigger, brighter, and actually built unlike anything promised to the academic programs. There is never a way to start over.
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