Selling Your Campus Culture Amid Closed Doors and Empty Offices

When I was editor of an alumni magazine, I loved doing features on retiring faculty members. These professors always had the best stories about campus culture and history … and the articles were always popular with their former students. Once I was interviewing a long-time, beloved political science professor and, when I asked him how the university had changed over the years, he told me to stick my head outside his office door and look down the hallway.

“What do you see?” he asked. “I bet you see an empty hall with lots of closed doors. There was a time when all those doors were open, and students were constantly walking in and out of every office.”

He was lamenting what he viewed as an unfortunate shift in culture, one in which his fellow professors were prioritizing personal research over creating a rich teaching environment for students.

As colleges and universities ease into a semblance of post-pandemic normalcy (whatever that is), some higher ed leaders are feeling similarly disheartened by the empty offices left behind by staff members who initially were forced by quarantine measures to work from home and have since decided to stay there.

Selling Community

During INNOVATE 2022, Capture Higher Ed’s annual virtual conference this past summer, Dr. Cindy Gnadinger, president of Carroll University in Wisconsin, discussed the challenge of showcasing a vibrant campus culture amid several closed doors and empty offices.

“It’s something we’re all trying to figure out,” Gnadinger said. “For us at Carroll, and I think for many institutions, we really highlight the community that our students will come and join, and what it will be like. The pandemic really upended that for us. All our [campus] communities have unique features about them, and we try to highlight those when we do our campus visits, and let students and their family members know, if you join our community, this is what it will be like. This is what makes our community unique.”

With the pandemic, she continued, the campus communities were halted.

“We went inward, and everyone paused,” she said. “We stayed away from the community, which was difficult for those of us who believe so strongly in that community. Because that’s what we’re selling … at all our institutions.”

Finding the way back to a rich campus community, both functionally and culturally, has been a challenge for many higher education institutions.

Gnadinger said: “We’re no different than other industries in that some of our employees said … ‘I really like being able to do my work from home. I like to stay home several days a week. Can I still do that? I can get my work done.’

“Then there are those of us in enrollment — and I count myself as leading that enrollment team, working with them — we’re trying to sell a vibrant community when our students and our parents come to campus. So, I don’t want our doors closed because they’re working remotely. I want, when they walk around campus, for them to see this wonderful, vibrant community at Carroll University.”

Developing Thoughtful Policy

According to the latest Student Voice survey, these concerns might be premature. The survey, which was conducted in mid-July by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse with support from Kaplan, captured the experiences and opinions of 2,239 college undergrads and spring 2022 high school graduates. When asked about experiences with non-academic campus offices, including comfort levels with fully remote departments, many students didn’t see in-person staffing as necessary.

But this survey was gauging student opinion on the practicalities of dealing with in-person staff over remote staff. It didn’t delve into the atmospherics. Do less people working on campus make the institution feel … dead?

It’s a question and challenge colleges and universities will continue to grapple with for the foreseeable future because, as this recent study from Texas Tech University revealed, “even in colleges’ highest offices there is a perception that remote work will be part of higher education moving forward. Developing thoughtful and effective policy will be critical to ensure that students are served, and institutions thrive.”

The study recommended that institutions focus their remote working policies on their mission and craft the policy in a way that will allow them to “recruit and retain top talent” for their staffing. Because, as anyone working in college enrollment knows, many of those closed doors and empty offices are also due to a shortage of employees.

Is the new post-Covid remote work reality changing your institution’s campus culture? Are closed doors and empty offices making it more difficult for you to promote your authenticity and uniqueness as a university?

By Kevin Hyde, Senior Content Manager, Capture Higher Ed