No, I Don’t Want To Lose My Faculty Office

We’re in the middle of a space planning conversation at Bethel, and I’m just hoping that we decide our department’s future location before this piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required) has a chance to seep into anyone’s consciousness. I’m afraid some of our planners might be tempted by paragraphs like those below to think they could solve several problems by simply doing away with faculty offices:

On many campuses, offices of all kinds take up 25 to 35 percent of nonresidential space. Faculty offices are typically occupied less than those for administrators — often less than half of the workweek. They are expensive to build (think $350 per gross square foot, one architect says) and costly to maintain, heat, air-condition, and clean. But whether professors could manage without offices of their own is a question most college leaders avoid asking in public.

“A lot of institutions are struggling with this,” says Graham Wyatt, a partner at Robert A.M. Stern Architects, which does a lot of work in higher education. “There is clearly pressure to economize on facility costs and to make sure that institutions are getting highest value for the dollar. We hear repeatedly that in the private sector the private office is going away — shouldn’t we be doing that in academia?”

But college administrators “continue to think of it as the third rail,” he says. Indeed, they joke that faculty members care about only two things more than tenure: “One is a private parking space and the other is a private office.”

Now, I’ll admit right off the bat that I actually work in several spots other than my office. In addition to our Seminary library and 3900 Grill, I help keep about half a dozen local coffee shops in business, especially in the summer. As architect Gregory Mottola points out in the Chronicle story, “Mobile computing is a huge benefit — you can work anywhere.” (So yes, I’d love a private parking space to facilitate my coming and going. But at Bethel, that’s long been a privilege reserved for administrators, save for a few faculty who teach practicums and clinicals off-campus.)

But I do the vast majority of my course preparation, grading, and writing in my faculty office. And I wouldn’t want that to change. The introvert part of me appreciates having a quiet, private space in which to work. And the extrovert half always leaves the door open, knowing that I’ll spend at least an hour or two each day in planned and unplanned conversations in a space far more personal and less sterile than a conference room.

In fact, I’m also one of the few faculty in our neck of the woods who never pulls down the blinds over his office window. We border Bethel’s student commons, and I very much want students to glance into my office, see me working, and be reminded that we’re here for something very different from what they should expect in the private sector.

I don’t mean to sound too grandiose, but let’s face it: the faculty office is one of the few spaces on campus that reminds past, present, and future members of our learning community that the university is an academic institution, and so can never fully embrace the look, feel, style, or ethos of the 21st century corporate world.

For example, Mottola questions the argument that faculty need offices for the sake of their books. (“Now all this stuff is digital.”) But not only do I still pull volumes off shelves for research and course prep, but those sagging shelves communicate something important to current and prospective students. All those books symbolize the challenge of scholarship as an ongoing, collective project, the pleasure of learning for the sheer joy of learning, and the patience and dedication that come with answering an academic calling.

For some students, that’s off-putting: my office doesn’t measure up to their ideal of the university as a glorified job training program, and they’d much rather meet with me in surroundings that evoke their future place of work. But as much as I want to frustrate those assumptions, I also want to welcome the minority of students who really do value the liberal arts — and need reassurance that they’ll find like-minded teachers and mentors on our campus.

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