A Sense of Place

Yes, it’s been awhile since I have written anything. Nothing since Dad’s eulogy. I’ve had ideas, but not really the desire to write. Time to get back to it.

I won’t go into the context of why this idea, but there is a reason for it. I was thinking tonight that I would like to move a university. Although, I really want to move two. After all, businesses, large corporations move, why not universities?

Colleges and universities often seem to have just happened in the oddest and least accessible of places. It is just so suboptimal at times because rural institutions can struggle as populations age and dwindle. Less rural institutions may struggle because there is larger, better known institution just a handful of miles away. It seems we could improve on this.

I’ve spent enough time on college campuses, growing up, going to school, working, and touring, that I understand they have ties to the physical place. And of course, an investment in the facilities of that place. But often, it is the history of the campus and its grounds that ties things together.

How important are these things anyway? Is the college the place or the people? Is the history of the campus and buildings really that important in most places? I can point you to one university where none of the original buildings are left. Would it be substantively different if they had simply moved it 10 miles away or across country?

I spent two years evaluating the need for a new public college in Virginia. Things like this happen when local leaders see a college as an economic development strategy. During that time, there was lots of talk of building something from scratch or creating a branch of an existing university. Not once did we talk about just moving an existing institution into place, because of course we would have to build a new campus and do something with the old one. There’s also the buildings that were built with donations and all that goes with philanthropy.

Not all colleges and universities are that successful with philanthropy, so I doubt that is a deal-breaker. As for the existing campus, why not recruit a college that might be a better fit in terms of programs and structures? We have an entire agency, as do most states, dedicated to recruiting businesses to the state, including relocations of an entire enterprise. Why should higher education be so different?

University of Phoenix, Arizona State University, and Southern University of New Hampshire distance programs, and many others, demonstrate that a sense of place can be much less important and meaningful than one might think. I can’t help but think moving some colleges might be a solution to problems of access and better meeting local/regional needs.

As a matter of fact, there is precedent in Virginia, some time in the 2000s, American Public University System (American Military University and American Public University) moved its headquarters and physical presence from Virginia to West Virginia. The primary reason for this move was to under the accreditation standards of the North Central Association’s Higher Learning Commission instead of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. Of course, APUS is an online university and is thus easier to move.

Now that the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) has allowed for the poaching of students from one college by another, the landscape of higher ed is shifting yet again. Why not poach entire colleges? Some number of colleges will close, mostly small privates. Often they are located far away from students…maybe more would survive instead by serving a different population.