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.