this issue...

What makes
this College or




What makes this

College or University UNIQUE?



Currently in the United States, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, there are 2,304 public and private 4-year colleges and universities, 1,016 2-year public and private institutions and 1,262 for profit institutions. A total of 4,582.


Not one of them is the same. Each is UNIQUE.


Just their location makes them unique–no college or university occupies the same geographic place. Their histories are different, and that makes them unique. Their endowments are different, and that makes them unique.



You can subdivide each institution into smaller and smaller categories of similarities until you can’t subdivide them any longer: public and private; urban, suburban, and rural; Carnegie classification1; enrollment size; residential and commuter; land, air, and sea grant; co-ed and single sex; historically black; religious; special academic focus; Division 1, 2, or 3; student faculty ratio; retention rate; the campus and buildings, etc., etc., etc.


As each college and university markets themselves as different, as unique, what do they convey as important? Their prestige? Their curriculum? Their culture? Their size and diversity? Their research? Small classes, individual attention, faculty availability, undergraduate research?


Loyola University of New Orleans says that its history, Jesuit tradition, community service, and centers and institutes make it unique.


Northwestern University: “What makes us unique is what makes us Northwestern–Northwestern is committed to excellent teaching, innovative research and the personal and intellectual growth of its students in a diverse academic community.”


Oregon State University: Oregon State is one of only two universities in the U.S. that have been honored with land, sea, space and sun grant designations. $441 million in 2017 research funding. More than all other Oregon’s public universities combined. A presence in all 36 Oregon counties and on all seven continents. We research, teach, serve and study everywhere.


Lynchburg College: But what makes us unique? Three doctoral programs: the doctor of physical therapy, the doctor of education in leadership studies, and the doctor of medical science. Our location–LC is located in the foothills of the spectacular Blue Ridge Mountains in central Virginia. The LC spirit–New students quickly learn that being friendly and helpful is an LC tradition. Our Vision 2020: Strategic Plan and our active student body.


Colleges and universities point out what makes them seemingly unique as a way to market themselves, to make themselves attractive to potential students.



Many small liberal arts colleges claim small section sizes, many claim the friendly supportive faculty. Many large universities claim the diversity of their programs, or student body, or social activities. Many colleges and universities claim proximity to a major, exciting big city. But, it is the combination of many characteristics that make an institution unique.


Often, what is claimed as unique is really not, but it is singular–and it is often a strength. Perhaps, it is more important to identify the strengths of a college or university than to try to highlight a unique characteristic.


It is the way in which students and faculty work together–teaching, learning, facilitating, involved in research–that often is emphasized.



A number of colleges and universities allow students to create their own major,–it is not unique to do so, but it is distinctive.


Core curricular initiatives can be grouped into a number of categories, but Ursinus College has transformed the curriculum to respond to four questions: “What should matter to me? How should we live together? How can we understand the world? And What will I do?” The faculty has embraced this initiative and it appears to be a unique approach.


Many colleges and universities do undergraduate research or an independent project. But very few integrate it into the curriculum as the College of Wooster has done. It is not unique, but it certainly is singular.


There are unique programs, such as Stanford University’s D. School. The School brings “together students, faculty, and practitioners from all disciplines, perspectives, and backgrounds.” “Experimental. Student-centered. Team-taught.” M.I.T.’s Media Lab is another example of a unique program where “Product designers, nanotechnologists, data-visualization experts, industry researchers, and pioneers of computer interfaces work side by side to invent—and reinvent—how humans experience, and can be aided by, technology.”



The campus planning process is relatively similar for most campuses but the uniqueness of each college and university, the personalities involved, the customs and governance of the institution, the programmatic and facility needs, the financial resources all affect and modify the process.


How does an institution’s uniqueness influence the campus plan? Should you be looking at what the institution says is unique, what is actually unique–or should your college or university strengths be touted? It is relatively easy to understand the similarities between institutions. It is the discovery of the differences that is important and should be cherished in the campus planning process. These differences need not be unique.


The word “unique” has become an overused word–like “master” plan, or like “love”, or like “like”. What should be touted is what makes your institution different. What are the strengths, programs, culture, resources that makes your institution special and distinct?


The characteristics of the physical campus usually have unique features in the geology of the site, the architecture and open spaces, the way the campus has grown and changed over time, the landscape and topography. These unique features can be celebrated, nurtured, and enhanced as an outcome of the campus plan.


The beginning of all campus plans has the planning triad of mission, vision, and strategic plan. Mission describes what you do while vision describes what the institution would like to become in the future. The strategic plan describes the goals and steps required to achieve the vision. The campus plan is dependent on the strategic plan, which in reality, is fundamental to a successful comprehensive campus plan.


The key is to determine those specific and singular qualities, programs, resources, approach, curriculum, or pedagogical initiatives that truly have an impact on the institution and should be highlighted and celebrated both in the strategic plan and the campus plan that follows.


It’s the many little things that might not be unique by themselves, but in combination are unique and it is that combination that should be commemorated. It is the combination of many characteristics that the campus plan must respond to and embrace.


Arthur Lidsky


1 Doctoral R1, R2, R3; Masters M1, M2, M3; Baccalaureate College; Associate’s College; Special Focus; and Tribal.




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