A Post-Covid World: Reassess “Business as Usual”

by Alyson Goff

The year 2020 has brought significant challenges with the global coronavirus pandemic, a national economic downturn, and a social justice movement. Colleges and universities across the country are grappling with the short- and long-term impacts of these events. Uncertainties and unknown durations are challenging institutions in numerous ways. Many institutions are using current events as an opportunity to reassess business as usual to rethink the campus environment while maintaining culture and sense of place.

Student enrollment had been shifting nationwide, which was exacerbated by the pandemic. In November 2020, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported1 overall postsecondary education enrollment was down 3.3% for Fall 2020 when compared to the same time the previous year. Freshmen enrollment showed a decline of 13%, and community colleges were most negatively impacted with a total enrollment reduction of 18.9%. (Further analysis is necessary to understand causation between the impact of the pandemic and enrollment shifts.)

As campus leaders examine the way in which the pandemic will have long-term impacts on the physical environment, one constant remains. Today’s students arrive to campus shaped by various experiences and thereby with new expectations. The mix of these populations will continue to shift, thereby requiring a re-examination of current space uses and allocations. Campus culture and sense of place (or belonging) remains an invaluable part of the collegiate experience.

The fundamental value proposition of the physical campus will persist going forward. However, it will need to be re-examined through the lens of 2020. Simply put, resiliency planning should be interwoven with all institutional planning. Specific to the physical environment, SmithGroup and JLL2 identified strategies and insights across a variety of space types to optimize and maximum an institution’s capital investments while realizing the value of place. 

A resilient roadmap should include the tenants of design thinking. The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University describes design thinking as a five-stage process: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. 3 (These are not sequential steps but rather can occur in a variety of orders.) Design thinking provides institutional planners with the flexibility to adapt and to pivot based on what works well while ditching what does not. Within the framework of the campus physical environment, the most successful solutions and strategies will be those developed by cross-institutional teams.

Such a cross-divisional planning model might have already existed on your campus or they might have been necessitated by the pandemic. Carnegie Mellon University is an example of an institution with an existing alliance, which better positioned the University to respond and prepare, particularly around the Fall 2020 return to campus. At Carnegie Mellon, strategic classroom planning is led by representatives from the Provost, Registrar, Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation, Computing Services, Camus Design, Facilities Management, and Campus Services. Colby College adopted a cross-divisional planning model to engage campus community members to address the immediate issue of returning to campus. University leadership empowered its resident experts with a more distributed leadership model, which allowed nimble and decisive decision-making. The planning and response model has proven successful and will likely continue exist beyond the current pandemic.

Units to consider for such a collaborative model are facilities management, campus planning, human resources, environmental health and safety, finance and budgeting, academic affairs, information technology, residence life, and student affairs. Engagement with consultants, particularly around architecture and engineering, can also positively influence the resiliency planning process.


1National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Retrieved 23 November 2020. Monthly Update on Higher Education Enrollment. 12 November 2020. https://nscresearchcenter.org/stay-informed/

2SmithGroup and JLL. Roadmap to the Resilient Campus. Retrieved 23 November 2020. https://www.smithgroup.com/sites/default/files/2020-06/JLL%2BSmithGroup_Roadmap%20to%20the%20Resilient%20Campus_email.pdf 

3Interation Design Foundation. Design Thinking. Retrieved 23 November 2020. https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/topics/design-thinking 

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