SCUP Notebook: A Cold Economy, Measuring to Manage Energy, and the Trouble With the Future

Minneapolis – Any conference strings together a series of lessons and experiences, both the formal in the sessions and the informal in the hallways. For the journalist grazing at the meeting, that’s a lot to absorb. What follows here are a series of thoughts and snippets that I collected in my notebook during the Society for College and University Planning’s annual meeting. Forgive the randomness of some of these reports. Of course, I’m saving the best stuff for full-length stories in the near future, and I will probably also expound on some of the items below. Stay tuned. …


Some prominent SCUPers told me that colleges—particularly vulnerable institutions, like the small colleges and midsize universities—aren’t taking the recession seriously enough. One well-known consultant told me that most colleges regard the economic climate like “a bad cold” that will pass. The reality, he felt, was that colleges are in a whole new world and that they need to do more to differentiate themselves from one another.

Another well-known SCUPer, who is also a consultant, said much the same. He bemoaned the lack of financial savvy among institutional leaders, including presidents and board members, which could prove to be a real disadvantage in this new era. And he said that institutions were not using institutional research in deep, intelligent ways. There is increasing talk about the use of analytics in campus planning and management. One problem, a SCUPer said, is that the word “analytics” is anathema to higher-education culture. It’s a corporate word. Whatever the case, you can check out Linda L. Baer, formerly of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System, now with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, talking about analytics here.

Who said this? “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” I’ve heard that quote attributed to the business guru Peter Drucker, but Google searches cite other names.

In higher-education facilities, it seems more true than ever. Many people at SCUP talked about the importance of metering electricity, water, and other resources, and it seems like more and more colleges are getting serious about investing in measuring flows of energy and other resources through the campus. It’s comes down to the fact that without metering, you’re just guessing about energy savings.

A couple of administrators from the University of Mississippi did a well-attended session on smart metering. They discussed the use of “building mayors” who, empowered by energy metering in buildings, would be able to help monitor and control energy waste in their buildings. (And from the sounds of it, all sorts of people have signed up to be mayors at Mississippi. The baseball coach, for example, is mayor of the baseball stadium.) Thanks to metering, the Mississippi administrators said, they can readily test ideas for energy savings and see results right away. And, of course, when metering is linked to interactive displays and games, you can get everyone involved in saving energy. (On this blog, we’ve noted a number of examples where people have used metering that way.)

What was striking about the session was the informal poll of the audience: Very few colleges in attendance were closely measuring their energy use.

What does space cost? Since Ohio State University recently put the brakes on space, I think more institutions are going to seriously grapple with the space problem on their campuses. I wrote about Ira Fink’s space-planning session at SCUP, but here is a video of the man himself, talking about the true cost of space. “If I can take 1,000 square feet out of a building, and the building costs $400 a square foot, I’ve reduced the capital costs initially by $400,000,” he says in the video. “But if it costs $33 a square foot to operate that space”—a standard figure—”that 1,000 square feet over 30 years is equal to $1-million in savings. And if you compound that at, say, 5 percent interest, that’s equal to $4-million.”

Mark Milliron is a great talker, no doubt about it. At SCUP, he knew how to stir a crowd, particularly with his ending anecdote about a woman who graduated from college, despite her abusive husband’s attempts to stop her, even kill her. But his techno-optimism is a bit much for me sometimes. It seemed at one point that he was trashing traditional library services and materials—saying that students had to go “back in time” to visit the library.

He also seemed to gloss over some of the real challenges that colleges and universities face with regard to resources. At one point he trotted out Thomas Mathus, that whipping boy for faulty doomsayers, and with that example he waved off the doomsayers of our current predicament. Malthus, it’s often said, underestimated human innovation. Innovation or no, I think the challenges of the future are indeed stark.

Mr. Milliron recommended reading The Next 100 Years, by George Friedman, along with Hot, Flat, and Crowded, by that other Friedman and The Next Hundred Million, by Joel Kotkin (recently interviewed by The Chronicle). For great futurism, I would recommend reading the work of Vaclav Smil, particularly Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next Fifty Years and Energy at the Crossroads. One of Mr. Smil’s lessons: Futurists peddle bunk. You can’t really predict what will happen—you can only get hazy pictures of what’s possible.

Here’s a video of a portion of Mr. Milliron’s talk, courtesy of SCUP.

Lastly, an impression about the meeting: The content was great, or perhaps I made good choices on sessions. I’ve been to a lot of SCUP conferences, some very splashy and well attended. But to me, this one really reflected the state of the economy. The vendor hall had a vacant feeling—more so than past conferences. (The vendors were not handing out tchotchkes like they have in the past—perhaps one sign of tightening budgets. That may be a relief for both vendors and attendees, who end up carrying home a lot of useless garbage.) Architecture and planning firms—and the dependent companies that deal in furniture, construction, bike racks, and so on—are the main vendors and sponsors at SCUP. Those firms have been hit hard in recent years. (The unemployment rate of architects in design-oriented cities like Boston is staggeringly high.)

A trend that SCUPers have observed recently is that the ratio of vendor attendees to institutional attendees seems to have gone up. For me, that’s not a problem, because I often get better tips from professional architects and planners, who have a broad view, than from campus people. (In fact, I came away from this year’s meeting with more story ideas and insights than I have in the past.) But if you’re trying to pitch your firm, it can’t feel good to have competition all around you. Institutional attendees might also feel like they’ve stepped into a shark tank.

One vendor told me that SCUP should consider raising member fees and hold the conference only every two years. Another SCUPer told me recently that SCUP should do what it can to drive out the vendors—and he’s a vendor. I’m sure SCUP, like many organizations, draws a great deal of financial support from its annual conference. But if this is a different world, as many SCUPers have said, some are asking whether this conference model can continue into the future.

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