December 17, 2019

Best Practices for Keeping your Professional School Ahead of the Pack

Achieving Impact

By Amanda Wirth Lorenzo and Elliot Felix

Professional schools are at a crossroads. Online education is growing steadily at about 10% a year with a third of students taking at least one class online. At the same time, career paths are more fluid with students preparing to have 5 to 10 careers over a lifetime – many in roles and organizations that don’t yet exist. Student demographics are changing, with decreasing international enrollments, increasing enrollment among first-generation students, increasing diversity by race and gender, and increasing emphasis on inclusion and equity at institutions and organizations that recruit their graduates.

How should institutions approach strategic planning in higher education? What are the best practices for professional schools to plan ahead when it comes to their spaces, services, staffing, and systems?

Many Deans are faced with tough decisions about how their academic programs should adapt, what student services are needed to best support students from applicant to alum, and what kinds of spaces and technologies are needed to compete with peer schools and catch-up to aspirant schools. Interestingly, space changes often trigger conversations about a school’s vision and strategy. Based on our work with more than 20 schools of architecture, business, education, engineering, law, and policy, we’ll share our take on the trends to review as you consider expanding or renewing your space, how to plan for them, and how to tell your story.

Tepper School of Business, Carnegie Mellon University (MRY Architects)

Strategic Planning in Higher Education: Top Trends Impacting Professional Schools

There are many shifts in higher education that are impacting the space, services, and organization of professional schools. Their role on campus is changing, the interactions they facilitate are broadening, and how research, teaching, and learning are supported is shifting. The following six trends provide an overview of the impact these shifts have and how you can plan for them.

  1. Welcome the Community with Programs and Spaces. Many professional schools were originally created as exclusive programs that catered to their specific student and faculty audience. Increasingly, professional schools are opening their doors to be hubs of activity and destinations for the campus community and local industry. Marquette University has moved forward on a broader Innovation Alley concept that connects multiple professional schools and advances cross-campus collaboration with local industry. To develop the vision and strategic focus for Innovation Alley, brightspot facilitated multiple sessions with campus leaders and industry stakeholders to generate pilot project opportunities that bring together diverse stakeholders across academia and industry. Following these sessions, Marquette received a $1 million gift to advance the E-Lead program at the Opus College of Engineering which focuses on training the next-generation of innovation leaders and is available to students across disciplines as well as professional organizations.
  2. Building Facilities that Embrace Collaboration Within and Across Institutions. With a transition towards more openness comes a new relationship to the parent college or university. Professional schools provide many resources, services, spaces, or technology, for audiences across the institution to support collaboration, interaction, and build community. Additionally, many students are now pursuing dual degrees which compel them to make connections across different disciplines and use resources across campus. While planning the next-generation business school at Carnegie Mellon University, brightspot worked with the leadership and campus community to define an “interconnected facility” with several university-wide functions: the campus welcome center, a café, a fitness center, and an entrepreneurship center. The David Tepper Quad – home to the Tepper School of Business and at the intersection with CMU’s six colleges and schools – opened in Fall 2018 and promotes an enhanced ecosystem of cross-campus collaboration.
  3. Advancing Interdisciplinary Research. Welcoming a broader audience and creating shared spaces provides the opportunity to facilitate interdisciplinary research with other programs and industry partners. Additionally, showcasing the work of researchers at professionals schools is of greater importance to attract top-tier faculty, advance scholarship, and increase research grants. At the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, brightspot investigated how social science research was conducted, how collaboration with partner programs was facilitated, and how technologies like AR/VR were being integrated into research. Research activities were attracting substantial grant monies and doing so at twice the productivity of peer schools on dollars per square foot basis. So, to support and scale this up, we had to first understand that faculty office was viewed their “lab” for many, and we then had to increase both the diversity and quantity of spaces.
  4. Enabling Experiential Learning. Professional schools, with focused learning outcomes, have tended to build program-specific classrooms such as a tiered classroom for case-method teaching. As experiential learning is integrated into the pedagogy of most disciplines, these purpose-built rooms are being renovated or replaced with flexible classroom spaces while many experiential opportunities are added outside the classroom. Professional schools benefit from the ability to provide exposure to real-world application, interactions with industry leaders, and collaborative team-based projects. At the University of Southern California, brightspot facilitated visioning, programming, and planning for the one-of-a-kind program at Iovine and Young Academy with Fred Fisher Architects. This program needed to facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration and learning, hands-on digital and physical making, and industry engagement within a new, expanded facility. The result is a space that provides different types of experiential learning spaces — maker spaces, incubator space, meeting rooms, and project rooms — knit together with a series of “collision” spaces for unexpected encounters.
  5. Supporting the Whole Student. Many professional schools provide their own student and academic services like recruiting, financial aid, and career advising. As student demographics continue to diversify, an understanding of student needs and the student journey is guiding a redesign of services that create a holistic experience. This requires providing the student with academic and non-academic support often in an accessible concentration of service providers to ensure efficient handoffs and productive collaboration. At Chapman Graduate School of Business at Florida International University, brightspot facilitated service design training with staff. We focused on developing a new organizational model that aligned staff departments with the student experience in order to promote collaboration, consistency, responsiveness, and meet emerging needs.
  6. Transforming the Workplace. To support a new type of professional school, faculty and staff office spaces are transforming as well. How and where people work is increasingly collaborative and flexible however the workplace is frequently a barrier. Additionally, in most workplaces, it can be difficult to accommodate growth and changes in departments. Working with MIT Sloan School of Management, brightspot conducted a workstyle analysis with six administrative groups to better understand current work patterns and develop space programs to right-size the workplace. This enabled the school to make effective use of their leased workspace, enable collaboration and coordination across departments, and create workplaces that reflect the distinct culture and activities of each department.
USC Iovine Young Academy (Frederick Fisher and Partners Architects, with brightspot)

What are the Best Practices for Expansion Planning?

As you think about the trends above and contemplate the future of your school’s programs, places, and people, we found it’s helpful to ground the thinking in your strategic plan. You should ask yourself if an expansion is even necessary, model different futures, think through events and activities as much as spaces, and approach benchmarking with caution. Let’s take these one at a time:

  1. Start with your strategic plan. Your space should be a tool to advance your strategy. So, decisions should ladder up to the vision, goals, and tactics in your strategic plan and the plan should answer questions about the disruptors in your field, your competitive landscape, your differentiator, and program changes. For example, before envisioning their new facility, Elliot worked with the University of South Carolina’s Moore School of Business to envision the future of the school and understand the future graduate, differentiators, and program mix.
  2. Think critically before jumping to physical expansion. The default response to enrollment growth or a donor gift or space shortages is expansion. But, growth can happen online, which does take some space but certainly less than on-campus programs. There are also often opportunities to “grow in place” by using space more effectively and time more efficiently, like growing evening or weekend programs that can use the same spaces more intensively. For instance, we recently worked with the University of Virginia’s School of Law to reprogram existing spaces for higher priority uses.
  3. Model different futures. Any enrollment projection you make will be wrong. So, expect that as the reality and model different scenarios for program growth so that you can see how the same spaces could accommodate different futures. As you think about these scenarios, you can test things like section/cohort sizes and different mixes of degree/non-degree programs, types of degree, on-campus vs. online vs. hybrid, and full-time vs. part-time. You can also define the boundary constraints such as dollars or square feet or number of faculty, and facilitate sessions to explore these scenarios in real-time. To plan the expansion of Carnegie Mellon’s Silicon Valley campus, we built a dynamic, population-driven model. This allowed us to see how different amounts and types of students/faculty/staff would result in different space needs.
  4. Design the curriculum and the calendar. Space, time, and money are related. To figure out your space needs, you need to think about when different activities will occur (i.e., will there be Friday classes?), what the range of those activities are (i.e., will classrooms also be event spaces?), and which programs are involved (i.e., can executive MBA classes meet monthly Friday through Sunday and therefore use the same classrooms as MBAs?), and what budget is shared or dedicated. Planning the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce’s new home required just this kind of back and forth to understand how cohorts of students progress through the week across spaces.
  5. Beware of benchmarking. It’s useful to establish a ballpark when you are trying to size an expansion but following benchmarks too closely can lead you down the wrong path. This approach might cause you to build the average of what your competition is already doing (bad!) rather than leapfrogging them (good!). Instead of benchmarking the past, you’re better off using design research and looking for inspiration across industries to invent your future. When we created a campus plan for University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, benchmarking other top-tier business schools was useful to confirm that the School had roughly the right amount of space overall, but not the right kinds of space or the right proportion of them – for instance, flat, flexible classrooms were in short supply.
Forecasting future space needs

How to Engage Your Community to Create Impact

One of our favorite axioms is venture capitalist Ben Horowitz’s assertion that “The company story is the company strategy.” This applies to professional schools of higher education as well. Too often, schools struggle to craft a compelling story about who they are, what they stand for, where they are headed, and why. They also fail to repeat and reinforce it as well – only when your audience is repeating it back to you have you said it enough. While there are lots of storytelling resources and experts out there, there are three things we’ve found helpful:

  1. Use established story building blocks and arcs. Part of how you can be intentional about your school’s story is to think of it as one. It needs characters, a plot, conflict, and resolution. There are familiar, archetypal arcs that you can use, like the hero’s journey. There are established ways to prompt this creative thinking. For instance, for a workshop with educators at SxSW EDU, we used Pixar’s mad lib to jumpstart stories about transforming education: “Once upon a time there was _____. Every day, _____. One day, _____. Because of that _____. Because of that _____. Until finally _____.”
  2. Co-create your story with your audience. To better engage your audience, be they students, faculty, staff, alumni, industry partners, or the surrounding community, create the story together through workshops, town hall meetings, and online forums. You’ll get better ideas that connect with people. To create the strategic plan for Marquette University’s innovation initiatives, we worked together to convene and facilitate a series of workshops with faculty and key industry partners focused on shared areas of interest and identified concrete projects that match university expertise with industry needs.
  3. Appeal to the emotional and the rationale. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt suggests the metaphor of our two selves (with some handy alliteration): the emotional elephant and rational rider. To better tell your story to students, faculty, staff, community, and alumni, think about your purpose, mission, and values; your strengths and areas of distinction, and your future direction and needs. Define and energize a community that people want to be a part of based on shared values and shared experience. For example, to define the University of Virginia School of Architecture’s capital campaign, we used both emotional calls to action (“Forge more just environments”) and rational ones (“Create space for our growing community”).

Spaces, services, and organization in professional schools need to adapt as work paths evolve, student demographics shift, and classes move online. We hope that these best practices will be your guide as you think about the future and how to make an impact. You can read more about how to get aligned and ready to realize your future vision via our approach to Strategic Planning and Managing Change, or get in touch if you have a project in mind that you’d like to discuss.