Issues and Trends in On-Campus Management and Operations

by Katie Sloan

Philadelphia — When discussing public-private partnerships, the dominant portion of the discussion largely focuses on the physical execution of the development — from the planning period, to construction and on-time delivery. Equally crucial to a successful P3 development is what happens after the doors are open and students have arrived to move into their homes away from home.

Last month’s InterFace On-Campus Housing conference in Philadelphia brought together a panel of experts on the subject moderated by Kelly Young, director of operations and development at Bluffstone.

The panel’s first topic began with the question of when the operations and residence life team would like to be a part of the conversation as it pertains to a new P3 development. 

“I want to be there the first day that everyone is at the table,” said Marilyn Tyus, housing director at the University of Michigan. “One of the challenges we have found as we’ve started to deal with P3s and the administration is that residential life is not at the table until further down the road. I think the information that the residence life staff can bring to the table needs to be there on the very first day.”

“I think part of the challenge is the chasm between private developers and very traditional on-campus housing folks,” said TJ Logan, the associate vice president for student affairs at Temple University. “There’s often a gap in terms of knowledge and understanding and this thought that P3s are the evil, bad guy. Until we gain a greater understanding, we’re not going to make our way to that table fast enough to be able to have those conversations early.”

Of the discussions that need to be had with residence life at the early stages of a P3 development, what responsibilities need to be retained by the university tops the list. “There are some responsibilities that the university just needs to retain,” said Tyus. “Safety and security — we need to control that. Data and bandwidth is another responsibility that needs to be retained by the university. We can’t have the living conditions different in a P3 development versus the rest of the campus because some students are going to question why they don’t have as many amenities or a certain administration. The flexibilities and inflexibilities need to be on the table early on.”

“From where we all sit, we all have the same mission — student success,” said Young. “It’s safe environments for learning and living.” When it comes to delivering this environment, a lot of different aspects of residence life and programming are at play.

“An overarching theme of engagement needs to be present everywhere,” said Adam Scarbro, director of residence life and customer care at Landmark Properties. “The building needs to engage with the students, and the events and programming at the property need to engage with the students. If you’re looking at an educational focus or learning community focus — regardless of style — the engagement of the student should be constant until they lay their head down and rest. We can weave this into the design, operation and staff — getting them to understand, along with their core job responsibilities of maintaining the property, that they have an opportunity and engagement level that is far beyond. That is the gift of the job.”

This engagement should reach every student at the property. “From a programming standpoint, trying to find something that reaches everyone is a little bit of a challenge, but those students that we don’t see more often, we’re really making an intentional approach to figuring out how to reach them,” said Courtney Redmond, regional director of RISE: A Real Estate Company. “You might have weekly gatherings, but being more intentional from the educational side with tutoring sessions or FASFA nights and helping students to really get ahead of things is important. We are an extension of the university, so constantly learning and teaching and training our residents is part of that as well.”

“From the approach of a toolkit that we give our programming colleagues, the era of big amenities might be over,” said Mike Selby, COO of University Student Housing LLC. “It’s about giving spaces and the tools to our programming partners so that they can achieve the engagement and the intentional targeting of student sub-populations that need to have programming opportunities. That’s the challenge that we have now — making sure that we are offering those types of spaces, whether it’s a theater that can be used for brown bag lunch and discussions or other sort of lecture-type activities. We want to address physical, mental and spiritual fitness.”

Understanding the mindset of the student population is integral to planning events and programming for everyone at your property. “One of the primary things that we need to first look at is do we understand the culture of the institution,” said Tyus. “It’s not cookie cutter — certain institutions need different types of engagement spaces, and if the conversation hasn’t occurred about what the culture is, then I think we might miss what the engagement needs to be. They need to be intentional, and we have to name it. The students have to know how to use it — they don’t know how to use it if they don’t know what it is. Space, in general, is very important. When we talk about building new facilities, the first thing we talk about is what engagement spaces are needed to make these buildings live and what the students would thrive in.”

Popular engagement spaces noted by the panelists include small rooms that allow for studying or small group meetings, soundproofed music rooms and specialized fitness spaces like yoga studios. Offering a variety of spaces in different sizes and designs, with and without designated purposes and technological components are also important to attracting students.

—   Katie Sloan

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