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No ivory tower: community colleges as economic drivers

Friday, 9 November 2012

We live in a time of constraint and experimentation, when both the state and the nation are seeking ways to enhance our economic well-being. No single institution is more on the front lines of these changes than the community college and nowhere is that more apparent than when examining the physical fabric of the school.

Over the past year I’ve worked with a Massachusetts community college, developing a campus master plan to guide the future physical development of the campus. When we raised the idea of arranging future buildings to create a traditional academic quad, the president interrupted.

“No! No! No! This school isn’t about turning in on itself, gazing at its own navel: it’s about engaging the community. We want the rest of the city to feel welcome here.”

He challenged us to take the concept of the quad and turn it inside out, so it would face outward rather than looking inward.  We proceeded with this insight and developed a plan that turned the campus ‘inside out’ and creating a major plaza that faced the city’s downtown and created a common ground that linked school and city.

I like to tell this story because it dramatically illustrates an important differentiator between community colleges and four-year institutions.  This is no ivory tower or insular research institution: for the community college the city is its lab and its inhabitants’ economic well-being relies on the education and training it provides. Its campus becomes a metaphor for access to opportunity.

This mission has a profound impact on the physical design and development of these institutions. It means that flexibility, adaptation, and an ability to adapt to changing demands must be part of the planning and design process for community colleges.

This means that as design professionals we need to be ready to respond and adapt to our education clients’ changing needs, with an approach that is open and agile and a conversation that goes two ways.

- Bill Fitzpatrick

Bill Fitzpatrick, AIA, has led the planning and design of a number of higher education projects for Shepley Bulfinch, including work for Salem State University (Salem, MA) and North Shore Community College (Lynn, MA).

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