In the wake of Covid-19 as college campuses quickly emptied out in March, I was talking with a few friends, clients and colleagues about "how" and "when" colleges were going to return to normal. The more we talked the more it seemed clear that returning to normal was not so easy...and maybe not desirable even after the pandemic. What if this was the moment to reimagine the next normal--a campus that would be a sustainable and vibrant place for learning that did not cost so much. The sudden flip to all remote learning and the sad prospects of falling revenues became hot topic subjects of webinars to which I listened as leaders, pundits and professors were gathered by the Chronicle for Higher Ed. Dire stories of financial ruin, overwhelmed faculty, and students thrown off course (literally) were shocking but not altogether surprising. Prior to the pandemic, the long running escalating costs, rising student debt and flat job salaries of graduates were bursting the value proposition ballon of higher education at private and public institutions. As an architect (and parent of fairly recent college graduates) doing projects and planning workshops at many liberal arts colleges for the last 25 plus years, the long simmering financial strains were coming to roost as dramatically portrayed in the 2014 documentary, Ivory Tower.
Since 2009 and in addition to domestic educational and library projects, I had been doing campus projects on the other end of the globe in post Soviet Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. I experienced a different culture, whose college age students were a new generation following the collapse of the Soviet Union. These students unlike their parents and grandparents were eagerly activating new freedoms of thinking, expressing, creating and interacting, empowered by global connectivity and innate hunger. Their urge to learn, to know, to hang out, to participate was intense and infectious. Their affiliation with their school and campus was different than their peers in America. I sensed that they behaved like owners of their campuses. That's ironic for a former nomadic and Soviet culture. I felt that these students were not following a scripted dream, but were forming new dreams. That was a new revelation, having spent so much time on American college campuses.