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Building the Future (And a Rationale)

7/1/2013

Kristina Cowan

At a time when many campus departments are forced to count pennies, multi-million dollar construction can create a big perception gap. How can presidents effectively communicate the need for new facilities and head off criticism?

Last September, Ryan Yarosh, director of media and public relations at Binghamton University (BU) in New York, took a snapshot of its new infinity fountain—part of an ambitious set of construction and renovation projects on the campus. Construction fencing still surrounded the stately river stone and granite structure, whose central reflecting pool perfectly frames the landmark Glenn G. Bartle Library Tower.  Still, anyone could see from the photo Yarosh posted to Binghamton’s Facebook page that the fountain, located at the heart of the campus, would soon be a natural magnet for students to meet, talk, and relax.

That’s when the complaints started pouring in.

“Instead of hiring professors, buying lab equipment, [and] offering affordable loans, Binghamton University is spending money on a better fountain. Congratulations,” was the first complaint in the comments section below the picture.

“Nice to know that is where my tuition went,” another commenter sniffed.

Not all the comments were negative. In fact, several correctly pointed out the difference between capital and operating budgets. Many noted that the very things that critics had complained of being underfunded were in fact being bolstered.

“So many uninformed complainers . . . it’s embarrassing for the Binghamton community!” wrote one defender of the project.

Criticism of campus improvements isn’t new, of course. But in today’s uncertain fiscal climate, any investment as expensive and visible as a construction project is going to draw fire—especially from those who perceive that their own priorities have gotten short shrift. Deep state funding cuts and sometimes anemic philanthropy revenue at colleges and universities across the country have led to frozen faculty salaries, tuition hikes, and tough budget choices. Plus big public-relations headaches for any president trying to build the future of an institution.

It’s no longer enough, in other words, to start building something and hope that its merits are obvious, higher-education experts say. To head off criticism before it can spread, college and university leaders must develop communications strategies that fully inform internal and external audiences about how a facility will serve an institution’s students, faculty, andfuture.

Constructing Cautiously

Campus-building statistics indicate that perception gaps and controversies like the ones that BU encountered may soon be a growing problem on other campuses: After a decade-long lull in campus construction, the pent-up need for new and refitted facilities has started to drive more building.

Campus construction spending, as defined by what was completed or expected to be completed or started in a given calendar year, hit a low point in 2012 at $9.7 billion, according to education consultant Paul Abramson, who has been tracking postsecondary construction for College Planning & Management magazine since 1995. But Abramson, also the author of the “2013 College Construction Report,” said colleges and universities reported plans to finish $9.8 billion worth of construction in 2013, and to launch another $10.1 billion worth of projects.

All of which portend many more chances for powerful campus stakeholders to ask pointedly, “Is that building really necessary?”

James Grant, the assistant vice chancellor for strategic communications at the University of California, Riverside, said the different audiences interested in new facilities carry different perceptions, which may pose challenges. Grant said these include: “Alumni who want [the] campus to stay the same as it was when they were there. Donors who want the university to be frugal, and parents who feel they are already paying high tuition and fees. And members of [the] public who don’t understand the financing mechanism we are using.”

Grant has seen projects delayed by lawsuits that develop from community opposition, including concerns that a facility will negatively affect real estate value or quality-of-life factors such as traffic, noise, or obstructed views. But he also said there’s a real need for new facilities, especially because buildings at many campuses are aging.

“We constantly see [the] need for replacing old facilities or building new ones with better technology,” Grant said. “And because of that, basically universities never really stop building and managing their facilities and campuses.”

UC Riverside’s capital financial plan for 2012 through 2022, for example, has a budget of slightly more than $1 billion, and includes 24 projects.

‘What’s In It for Me?’

To counter perception challenges and stop the spread of misinformation about construction projects, experts say campus leaders need to develop communications strategies that address each key group.

Public institutions in particular must be able to explain to state legislatures and taxpayers “what is in it for them,” said Randell Kennedy, president of Academy Communications, a Massachusetts-based communications consulting group that works with public and private colleges and universities.

Kennedy listed several questions that campus leaders must have compelling answers to, including: “How is this going to . . . have a positive effect on our state? How is this going to give our students a better public experience, and why is it worth the investment? And you have to be very clear and concise in your answers.”

Clearly communicating that a building is going to have a reduced carbon footprint, that it is leaner, smaller, and better—these are all important points, Kennedy said. “People look for smart investments in technology. If you explain right away how a building that will incorporate technology won’t be outdated in a few years, [and] show thoughtfulness that every dollar being spent is being spent wisely, that is key,” he explains.

That’s a view shared by Lander Medlin, executive vice president of APPA, formerly known as the Association of Physical Plant Administrators—an Alexandria, Virginia-based association of educational institutions and their facilities and physical plant departments. Medlin said if a public institution can show its state legislature that it’s using existing space efficiently, legislators may be more willing to provide funding for new facilities.

As an example of this point, Mohammad H. Qayoumi, president of San José State University in California, said that instead of building more libraries or computer labs, which can be virtualized, a college might repurpose such facilities into common areas where students can work in groups.

It’s vital, Qayoumi said, to communicate how new facilities will improve learning environments and lead to greater student success. If a particular space will help students become more career-ready and more competitive in the job market, campus leaders should clearly articulate this to their different audiences. Underscoring a facility’s projected positive impact on retention and graduation rates is also important.

That’s especially true for public institutions, Qayoumi added, as they seek to increase graduation rates, decrease the time it takes students to graduate, and reduce dropout rates.

“If we can change the perception of the public and of policymakers that this is not really an expense, [that] this is an investment of how we can improve the human capital of our region, then they will be less resistant,” Qayoumi said.

Be a Great Communicator

It was thanks to just such a communications strategy that Dallas County Community College District (DCCCD) in Texas won a $450 million bond election in 2004, even though taxpayer budgets were tight, according to Wright Lassiter, DCCCD ’s chancellor. Through the bond program, the district was able to construct 29 new buildings and complete repairs, parking lots, and other projects. The construction and repairs, finished in slightly more than six years, enabled the district to meet the needs of an enrollment that surged about 20 percent.

The communications strategy emphasized that the district, which hadn’t called a bond election in 31 years, was a good steward of resources. Equally important, Lassiter said, it was backed by DCCCD ’s Foundation Board, which includes business and civic leaders who headed the effort to gain public support for the bond election.

Lassiter said he encourages other presidents and campus leaders to be visible advocates for the construction plans they hope to accomplish. Focused verbal and written communication plans are also essential, he said, to bridging information gaps: In making the case for new facilities, for instance, community colleges should articulate the need for more space to accommodate the influx of adult students looking to change careers. Unless and until a district informs voters about it, Lassiter said, many remain unaware that community colleges are educating large numbers of students who already hold higher education degrees.

“The way the economy is turning, they have to come back to get further skills,” he said.

Full Court Press

In communicating the need for new and improved college and university facilities, the message is important, but experts on and off campus emphasize that the medium also matters.

“Those communications initiatives that are most effective blend the traditional, in-person community forum meetings with social media: engaging people via Twitter; having a Facebook presence,” said Randell Kennedy, the communications consultant.

BU, one of Kennedy’s clients, relied on just such a blended approach to educating internal and external audiences about the $481 million of construction and renovations it just completed, said Ryan Yarosh, the campus’s director of public relations. And the success of that communication strategy makes it a natural model for the university’s upcoming projects, including a $70 million Smart Energy Research and Development Facility.

Part of that approach is in-person campus and community meetings, where everyone has a chance to offer feedback about proposed facilities, Yarosh said: BU goes out of its way to explain to students, faculty, staff, parents, alumni, and local taxpayers why construction projects are necessary, how they’re funded, and how they’ll benefit the university, the community, and the state. That includes addressing confusion and supplying details about how a particular building—for example, a residence hall—is being funded.

“We try to educate them from the outset, to let them know how we get money through bonds, and [how] it is paid back through rent students pay to live in the facilities,” Yarosh said.

The same type of information gets transmitted through social media. BU uses Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, the university’s website, and campus listservs to share updates, pictures, and videos of construction projects.

Kennedy said designating one person to monitor social-media conversations about new facilities is a wise idea for both public and private institutions. The person should be empowered to intervene when misinformation appears—because it will—and offer accurate information to set the record straight, he said.

“That is where I see the train coming off the rails. As soon as an inaccurate story pops up, it spreads like wildfire through social media,” Kennedy said. “So being able to identify erroneous information . . . and intervene—the schools that know this really seem to get ahead of the game. If they have one person [in charge], that keeps them from having too many chefs stirring the soup.”

Strategic Reinforcements

That doesn’t mean campus officials should always jump in themselves: Yarosh pointed out that sometimes it’s a better idea to let campus allies come to one’s defense. When students or alumni, for example, post their support for building plans on a social-media platform, it generally comes across as more authentic than if the message comes directly from campus officials.

Case in point: the brouhaha over BU’s new infinity fountain.

After the initial spate of criticism that the university should have spent money elsewhere instead of on the fountain, a solid stream of better-informed alumni weighed in on the university’s side, some gently chiding the complainers:

“There is also a lot of money budgeted to upgrading the education facilities that can’t be used for other things,” wrote one. “That’s what a budget is for. If you are going to complain, know the facts of what you are complaining about.”

“[T]ypically money for this sort of thing cannot be used for lab equipment, faculty, etc.,” noted another supportive commenter. “They come from separate funds and we either use it or lose it.”

By the time the comment thread trickled out, the original complaints were still there, but the tide of opinion had decisively turned, and a substantial majority of comments overall were positive—not just about the fountain but about the university itself:

“It’s a fountain, folks, and it will add to the beauty of the campus. . . . Instead of complaining, how about you all remember to GIVE back to the university.”

The fountain opened on schedule.

 

Kristina Cowan is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area.

 


 

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