this issue...

Puzzling over
Priorities for
Campus Planning




Campus planning is, on one level, a straightforward process to develop an answer to the question, “What facilities will we need to advance our mission over the next 10-20 years?” But as we think about what should be done, and the resources we may have to make these proposals reality, it becomes clearer that it’s not quite so simple. We begin to ask questions like:

  • What aspect(s) of our mission are most deserving of facility support?
  • Since we can only do a portion of what we’d like to do in any period, which projects are essential to our continued and greater success?
  • What projects do we need to do soon, and what can be deferred?

And we begin to realize that we need to frame a dialogue that will build consensus around institutional priorities.

There are a number of possibilities for determining priorities for campus planning projects.

  • The President and/or Trustees could meet to declare the high level institutional view.
  • The Faculty could determine its view of priorities rooted in the academic plan.
  • The Advancement Office could identify those projects most likely to resonate with donors.
  • Students could decide the issue by liking projects in a Facebook poll.
  • City residents could choose projects that would both provide amenities to the community while avoiding friction in the neighborhood.
  • The Alumni could prioritize the projects for the good of the college.
  • The Consultant could dictate priorities based on his or her preferences and best professional judgment.

Perhaps all of these things could be done and then somehow synthesized to articulate the ultimate statement of institutional direction. However, this process is likely to be lengthy, potentially messy and probably somewhat divisive. What is absolutely essential about prioritization is that it is fundamentally an institutional responsibility. While consensus may be impossible, a shared vision is achievable and a strong indicator of success for plan implementation.

There are two tools we employ to get to the heart of the prioritization puzzle. The first tool is based on a simple, somewhat impressionistic matrix that responds to the ambiguity of multi-dimensional goals. Two axes bisect one another at right angles creating 4 quadrants. The vertical axis represents urgency from low to high, the horizontal axis represents alignment with mission and vision from negligible to strong. Projects are placed in each quadrant according to the project’s conformance with its plotted position along both axes. We were introduced to this methodology by, John Sell, a wonderful collaborator we met in the course of our ten-year (and counting) engagement with the College of Wooster.

The second tool is a more rigorous mapping of projects and their contribution to achieving strategic goals. A matrix is developed that arrays the projects down the vertical axis and the institution’s strategic goals along the horizontal axis. Each project is then assessed in regard to the impact it would have in advancing each of the goals. (a 3- or 5-point scale is sufficient). Those projects with the most points rise to the top of the priority list. An implementation plan can then be devised informed by these rankings and the logistical factors affecting project sequencing.

Clients have led us to develop other methods beyond these, but whether we use either of these methods or devise a third, the process tends to be iterative. Generally the college participants in the prioritization process should be familiar with the planning to date and in positions with at least some responsibility for implementing the plan. Basic questions participants should wrestle with prior to prioritization discussions include:

  • Of this long list of projects and proposals which will most positively impact students? Why?
  • Which of these initiatives best advances our core mission? How?
  • How might these projects embody our vision of the future?
  • If we could only do three of the things proposed, which would they be? Why?
  • For each proposal, is there an acceptable (or better) way to meet the need?
  • Link a project to one or more strategic goals. If you can’t, does the project have a lasting justification?

Prioritization of a plan’s projects and initiatives is a demanding process critical to plan success and longevity. This is the stage of the process where the excitement of developing project concepts, and receiving and assessing the possible plan alternatives gives way to reflection and hard choices from a list of attractive options. It’s where the institution exerts the most influence on the development and final representation of the plan. Ensuring that a sound methodology appropriate to the culture of the institution is in place to frame this phase is a key to plan success.

Readings, not all of them focused on campus planning, that might be done on the issue of decision-making in complex settings include the following:

“Campus Planning ­ Creating the Framework for Decision-Making”, Arthur J. Lidsky, AICP

“Practical Considerations in Selecting a Method for Planning”, Campus Planning, Richard P. Dober, p. 177

“A Pyramid of Decision Approaches”, Schoemaker & Russo

Nudge, Thaler & Sunstein, ch. 4 – “When do we need a nudge?” and ch. 5 – “Choice Architecture”

The Fifth Discipline, Senge, ch. 11 - “Shared Vision”

George Mathey




On-going Projects

  • Campus Plan for the College of Wooster, Wooster, Ohio
  • Campus Planning for Dyersburg State Community College, Dyersburg, Tennessee
  • Space Utilization Assessment for Westfield State University, Westfield, Massachusetts
  • Space Utilization Assessment and Needs Projection for the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York
  • Programming for the Campus Planning led by NBBJ/Chan Krieger for Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts
  • Programming for academic departments at Fitchburg State University, Fitchburg, Massachusetts
  • Student Housing Study for Hobart & William Smith Colleges, Geneva, New York
  • Science Facility Planning & Programming for Occidental College, Los Angeles, California

Recently Completed Projects

  • Campus Plan for the House of the Seven Gables, Salem, Massachusetts
  • Early stage facility programming for Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, Moscow, Russia



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