Friday, May 26, 2006
"It's Only Temporary"
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.
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.
Oddest thing? they all have the brandy-new "smart classroom" techology.
I can't decide if I win or lose.
No one even believes it any more, except for the new faculty recruits. (Suckers.)
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.
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.
Don't diss it out of hand.
That was six years ago.
...not that I have a better idea!
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.
We're down-sizing to greatness yet again.
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...
A hospital executive would feel more comfortable contracting a nurses from an agency dedicated to temporary medical staffing than from a one-stop-shop that also places welders, janitors and filing clerks.
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