Do All Faculty Members Really Need Private Offices?

How would faculty members on your campus feel about sharing office space?

A university architect came to lunch yesterday and said that professors’ offices are a contentious issue at her institution right now. Faculty members are complaining that the state-mandated standard, 120 square feet, isn’t big enough. Meanwhile there’s a severe space crunch on the campus, she said, and classrooms are in use from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.

That led me to wonder whether every faculty member really needs an office. No doubt some professors use their offices a lot, but others are probably behind their desks only a few hours a week, preferring to work at home when they can. On a big campus, if even a quarter of faculty members agreed to some sort of office-sharing arrangement, that could free up a lot of space—a building’s worth, or maybe two.

The architect protested that offices are status symbols for faculty members, which of course is understandable. And a standard office with two desks crammed into it would be no more appealing than a freshman-year double in a dorm. But let’s think creatively.

Say a department provided a spacious, well appointed, comfortable, very exclusive commons area for its faculty members—something like a library’s reading room, maybe, with library tables that professors could spread their work out over, conference rooms in which to meet students or make phone calls, club chairs and sofas for relaxing, reading, and conversing, maybe even a patio or garden. Each faculty member would have a big lockable storage space, or perhaps a rolling cart for books and papers, and could plug in a laptop anywhere in the commons on any given day. (Some companies have taken similar approaches.)

I’m sure there are faculty members who would hate such an arrangement. So maybe a two-tier system would be in order—a professor could have a private office if he or she thought it necessary, but those who agreed to use the shared space might get a little supplement in their paychecks each month, or get better parking or maybe a free faculty-club membership.

And who knows? A commons arrangement might actually prove desirable—it might encourage people to interact more than they do tucked away in long rows of little offices. Many academic buildings these days are designed to encourage interdisciplinary interaction, but usually they do it by making people share staircases and lobbies. Could pulling professors out of private offices be the next step?


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