Sal Rinella, February’s Buildings & Grounds guest blogger, is president of the Society for College and University Planning. He is also a consultant with the strategic-planning firm Stratus and is former president of Austin Peay State University.
In turbulent times like these, colleges have a natural tendency to hunker down, put building and renovation projects on hold, make cuts, and wait for the financial storm to pass. But a crisis might be a prime time for campus leaders to pursue a big project that keeps spirits high and the institution moving forward. Recently, I read an article by Saj-nicole Joni, chief executive of Cambridge International Group, who said: “Never waste a crisis.”
“Ask yourself what you can do now that you couldn’t do before,” he wrote. “How can you position yourself now so that you will be better off than you were, once the crisis is over?”
In a recession, one way to position an institution for that kind of advancement is to form a partnership with the local community on a major capital project, like a library, a hotel or conference center, or a mixed-use development with housing, academic buildings, and retail. Such projects will help finance institutional needs and raise a college’s profile in community service and regional development.
Most universities are in a fairly good position to do this. Their longevity, staying power, and steady student base — in bad times as well as good — place them among the few organizations still considered good risks by large, viable lending institutions, many of which remain interested in financing good projects for solid clients.
How a college goes about a partnership is critical, particularly in difficult financial times. If handled badly, the partnership looks like a real-estate deal with little to do with the academic mission of the institution. Handled well, it can become a way to energize the faculty and staff members, students, and external stakeholders around a project that will take the institution to the next level.
There are basic approaches that institutions can take to assure this:
Begin with a comprehensive planning process that focuses, first and foremost, on how the project will help realize an institution’s academic vision and enhance quality and distinction.
Involve faculty members so that they can see how the partnership with the community on the project will contribute to academic quality and bring money to the institution, rather than diverting funds away from it.
Identify successful, similar partnerships at highly-respected institutions to learn from their experiences and reassure skeptics.
Create a broad-based steering committee whose members can champion the vision for the project. Their energy and passion will overcome obstacles that will emerge in the planning process.
Pull money from various sources — the public, donors, foundations, third-party developers, etc. — to provide a sufficiently diverse financial base to capitalize the project.
Court key community and corporate opinion makers and financial supporters early in planning to attract their support and resources.
Give up enough control so that the principal partners can get what they need from the project.
Provide incentives for developers to participate, such as access to discounted financing rates; tax-increment financing; redevelopment funds, etc.
Include broad-based consultation so there is a sense of ownership by all constituencies.
Be realistic, do the math, and be sure that the venture is financially solid in the short and long term.
The list isn’t as entertaining as the Letterman Top Ten, but it will help assure that the institution emerges from projects undertaken during the financial crisis with its vitality intact and with a stronger foundation to build on when times improve — and with a stronger relationship with the local community. —Sal Rinella