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Planning for Equity on Campus with CoHere | VS America

Planning for Equity on Campus with Chris Morett from Co|Here

VS’ Director of Higher Education Thomas Doe interviewed Dr. Chris Morett, Founder of Co|Here, a higher-ed and workplace strategy consultancy focusing on space planning and activation, about his unique approach to planning and how we can better activate spaces to address equity on campus.

Tell me about how you found your way to starting Co|Here coming from the public sector?

I saw a need within higher ed for certain services beyond what was commonly available that would help colleges and universities use their space to drive important organizational goals such as student learning and belonging. I like to say that space isn't just an asset to be managed, but a tool to be leveraged. The management of space also tends to be pretty disconnected from the other parts of the ecosystem in which it exists, including but not limited to technology. That's a result of how the organization is structured and also, if I can be honest, of the fact that many people just are not oriented this way. Maybe they don't have that mentality. They certainly don't tend to be rewarded for it. And they're also really busy. There are a lot of opportunities do some interesting, targeted projects, especially as institutions aim to show the value of an in-person campus experience, which I heartily believe in.

As an example of this, I think if you asked most university leaders whether their learning spaces are aligned with their institutional teaching and learning strategy, they would not have as thorough an answer as they themselves would like. I saw the opportunity to help there, with pretty cost-effective interventions that provide noticeable results. This is something I do whenever I participate with an architect on a campus master plan. Tracey Birdwell, who is now with Purdue University after a successful time at Indiana University, and I offer workshops on this topic as well.

Aligning those goals right now is super important and there is definitely no silver bullet that I have seen so this is great.  How are you helping institutions see the potential upsides of considering teaching and learning strategies?

The most high-profile thing I have done, I guess, is the Faculty Approachability Project. I would argue that faculty approachability and faculty-student engagement don't get enough systematic, sustained attention. I haven’t heard of anyone who has created or instituted an overarching metric for either of those concepts – although there may be a few out there. The Faculty Approachability Project tries to build awareness and capacity so that institutions can utilize a mix of approaches -- including space, of course -- to improve in this regard. We offer open-source resources such as a toolkit and LinkedIn Live episodes, which my dear friend Nancy Sturm (from nv5, technology consulting firm) so astutely suggested to me. There are also workshops and technical assistance. It's a fun project because it tries to go to the heart of what excites people and to tap into that to create joy and change.

The Faculty Approachability Project sounds interesting.  How do you see it being used in practice with your clients?

Given that some of it is open-source, I think there are people using it that I don't know about. As for clients, I try to integrate the principles of the project into campus master plans and classroom/learning space master planning. The workshops are also nice stand-alone ways to get institutions thinking about these topics and to at least start a conversation -- preferably one that involves robust student participation. I often try to pitch these to teaching and learning centers because, while there's no single entity at an institution that has explicit responsibility for faculty-student engagement, CTLs are hip to it.

Are you exploring any other projects right now?

Definitely and the Inside Higher Ed op-ed “Five Actions to Address Inequities in Course Scheduling” I just published is an early step -- well, an early visible step because I've been working on the idea behind the scenes. I think that, while architecture and planning firms have a genuine interest in spaces that support everyone in their performance, belonging, and well-being, I think if you asked 100 people to define what it means for there to be an inclusive and equitable campus, you would get 100 different answers. We need specificity, consensus and ongoing conversations. But not just that -- and there are good conversations, including the burst of attention that neurodiversity has rightly received -- but measurement. I was trained as a social scientist and a famous sociologist once said, If you can't measure it, forget it. He meant that in the context of academic research, but I think we'd all agree that things that don't get measured often fall by the wayside.

So, to answer your question, I have developed rubrics to evaluate equity of access to a school's learning spaces and to gauge the extent to which spaces such as counselling centers, career services, etc. are inclusive. My goal is to help institutions measure, and benchmark, access to certain key spaces. That will help generate ideas for the concrete steps that can be taken to make sure everyone is supported. The concept of inclusion and equity for an entire campus is so sweeping and nebulous so I think it's just pragmatic to focus on some key spaces and act rather than just theorize. I'm excited because this will help college and university leaders, when asked whether they can illustrate their DEI strategy and quantify an impact, to answer yes. I know DEI efforts are under fire in some places, but I think for a society at large or an institution to say that it’s not interested in serving all of its constituents just doesn't make any sense.

Also, because architecture and planning firms are such key players here and can help institutions meet these goals, I am working on a course that will offer AIA-accredited continuing education credits to bring this message to the design community. 

Regarding physical campuses and how they are designed, what do you see as the next important concept to consider when working towards those DEI goals for institutions?

I think there needs to be more understanding that space and technology, among other factors, are tightly woven to create a single experience. I was working on a space and services planning project for a university library last year and I said that they also needed to develop an outreach strategy, including digitally, to complement what they were doing with their spaces. I told them that the library is a force, not a building.

I also think, within the realm of space, that any given space should be considered more holistically within the context of the entire space inventory. That's one of the thoughts that made me design my consultancy not just as space planning, but as space activation. There are some awesome buildings that are poorly used once the architect walks away.

A specific example would be to have more spaces outside of the classroom to facilitate student and faculty conversation once they need to vacate the classroom, and for students to just congregate. There are actually best-practice ratios of classroom space to meeting spaces in a classroom building as I learned from Shannon Dowling from Ayers Saint Gross. Most classroom buildings, at least older ones, are in stark violation of that. But, even then, that's where activation can come in. Maybe the professor doesn't have any space right outside the room, but can she partner with the learning center in the next building to have office hours right after class? Prior to the pandemic, that's actually something I wanted to work on when I was at Rutgers and the director of the learning centers there, Stacey Blackwell, is all about things like that.

How can you see industry partners like VS engage with and practically implement your research?

A couple ways. First, they have the power of persuasion and often come into the picture, perhaps not as early as they should, but when there still are some decisions to be made. They can push in the right direction.

Ideally, the design process would be carried out so that all the players in the process, including vendor partners, are engaged as early as possible – and before construction starts. This would decrease the risk of earlier decisions needlessly constraining later decisions and of later steps in the process being value engineered just because they are last, not because they are less important.

If end users are not intelligently incorporated both from the beginning and in terms of ongoing relationships, you end up at risk of making some preventable mistakes. I was on a panel at a Tradelines conference last year and I said that planning and design leaders have to find a way to be in continual conversation with the university at large, not just when projects start. They need to go to brown bags where academics present research. They need to find ways to guest lecture. Projects will go much better. Not just because they'll know stakeholders better, but because they will be able to make their own observations, to realize things that end-users might not think to mention, and to apply their own wisdom earlier on in the process.

Furniture also drives behavior by not only supporting it but also catalyzing it. Seeing active learning furniture can push people to attempt or at least inquire about that pedagogy. Standing-level desks can push people into less sedentary states, which we know is generally better for you. Furniture can help make it easy for people to make better decisions. They define the space probably more than anything else. Certainly more than what the exterior of the building looks like -- not that I'm against good design there, of course.

Think about it. The proximity and angle you are sitting at relative to others will shape whether and how you interact with them to some extent. Imagine if furniture nudges a few more people to have a few more conversations. Maybe they become your study buddy, or a connection to a job someday. Or even your spouse!

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