Sunday, May 20, 2018


A piece in the Chronicle a couple of weeks ago asked whether faculty offices have a future.

It isn’t a terribly thoughtful piece, which is a missed opportunity.  

I’ve seen full-time faculty offices handled differently in different places.  At CCM and Brookdale, they’re typically fairly large, and usually shared. At Holyoke, they’re typically very small, but private.  I can see arguments for each. Given faculty schedules, a “shared” office often only has one person in it at any particular time, so the imposition of sharing is less than it might seem.  Private offices allow for a bit more idiosyncrasy, which can be very good or very bad. (I’ll just note that faculty status does not give automatic immunity to “hoarding,” and leave it at that.)  Whichever way they work, though, they provide a working space, a meeting space, and a place to hang out on campus.

I’ll admit, too, to enjoying reading the cartoons on faculty office doors.  Maybe that’s just me.

Apparently, there’s a move afoot in some places to replace individual (or pair) offices with “open” workspaces, like cube farms.  The argument is that it’s more efficient on a square footage basis. Adjunct work areas are often like that now; the “bullpen” model is quite common.  It’s the same idea, but applied to full-time faculty.

The argument for the “cube farm” model is based on several factors, but I don’t personally find any of them persuasive.  There’s an argument from the cost of construction, but if you already have existing buildings, that argument is moot. Online courses can be taught from anywhere, and it’s true that faculty who teach online a lot can be tougher to find in their offices.  And heating and cooling offices isn’t free, but again, that assumes that you can detach existing offices from the HVAC system. You can’t.

Where you stand depends in part on where you sit, and I sit at a college with declining enrollment.  One of the few compensations of declining enrollment is that space crunches tend to evaporate. I’m told that at the enrollment peak, circa 2010, there was talk of building a parking garage on campus to handle all the cars.  Years of declining enrollments have cured the parking crunch; nobody talks about building a garage anymore.

I feel similarly about faculty offices.  If we were hiring vast numbers of full-time faculty, and we couldn’t build fast enough to keep up, then yes, I could see the argument for cube farms as ways to maximize space.  But we have space, and we’re losing many more full-time faculty than we’re hiring.

Declining enrollments bring declining revenue, which puts pressure on class sizes, health benefits, salaries, travel funding, and all sorts of other benefits.  That’s frustrating, conflictual, and sometimes self-defeating, but at least there’s a discernible connection between the (very real) problem and the proposed solutions.  Crunching remaining faculty into smaller, “open” spaces, while leaving other areas entirely vacant, would simply add insult to injury. It wouldn’t gain the college anything, and it would generate all sorts of irritation.  It would solve the wrong problem. As parsimonious as we have to be with everything else, we should at least be able to enjoy having more room. That’s particularly true given that the buildings already exist, so the cost of construction has already been paid.  Leaving built offices empty wouldn’t save anything.

And that’s before getting into the merits of “open” floor plans, of which I am not a fan.  Corporate America is starting to move away from those, because it has discovered that ambient noise and constant interruption reduce productivity.  It’s hard to focus on your own stuff when someone a few cubes away is having a conversation. Given that some student conversations can be sensitive -- disclosures of family issues, say, or tearful admissions of hunger -- putting them on display for the world to see would fall somewhere between “tone-deaf” and “cruel.”  

One upside of the relative availability of space is that we’ve become able to move a partnership with our flagship state university onto our main campus without displacing anybody.  Honestly, I’d be thrilled to see the enrollment gains from that partnership generate a new space crunch. That’s a problem I’d like to have. We’ll see.

In the meantime, though, let’s leave the full-time faculty offices alone.  They serve multiple purposes, and getting rid of them wouldn’t save anything.  There’s enough conflict over shrinking resources; space has become an expanding resource.  Let’s be generous where we have the option.