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Although students engage with the bricks and mortar of a university's campus more than anyone, there's more likely to be radio silence than an interactive relationship with the facilities department.

According to Don Coffelt, Associate Vice President of Facilities Management at Carnegie Mellon University, this is a huge missed opportunity. In addition to his oversight of CMU's 150-acre Pittsburgh campus, Coffelt is a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. This interaction with the student population gives Coffelt a unique perspective on facilities' role in engagement.

We discussed this issue and more with Coffelt, who shared his thoughts on how today's cultural norms place new demands on our time, the traits that define successful leadership, and why he believes significant consolidation is coming in higher ed.

How did you make the leap from the Coast Guard to higher ed?

As you know, it’s a pretty traditional pipeline. I transitioned from active duty into the Coast Guard Reserves in 1995 while I was the Public Works Director for the Coast Guard Shipyard in Baltimore. I left active duty and went to work for eight years with a private sector contractor who did contract facilities management work, but almost exclusively in the government sector. My company transferred me to their Pittsburgh headquarters in 1998.

I enjoyed my time in the corporate sector and I learned a lot about profit-loss responsibilities, which you don’t learn in the government; you’re managing budgets, not balance sheets. But I missed being part of a mission-first organization. There’s nothing wrong with making money, but the purpose of a university has this higher calling that's beyond the bottom line on the financial statement.

I also missed the perspective of an owner and the over-the-horizon thinking that you just don’t get in the private sector. I also love people: I like knowing who's on my team and what’s going on in their lives. You don’t get that comradery with a contract group where you're only together for a few months.

"In a nutshell, I missed those relationships, purpose, long-perspective, and the community."

I was mobilized with the Coast Guard Reserves in early 2003 as the U.S. was preparing for the invasion of Iraq.  While I was assigned to the Pentagon, Carnegie Mellon offered me this fantastic role. It was an opportunity I’d always dreamed of. Carnegie Mellon agreed to wait until I finished my service obligation, and when I got the chance, I grabbed at it and never left. This place is just so amazing. It fits me culturally, personally—and I'm so fortunate.

How did being in the Coast Guard shape your leadership style?

Wow in so many profound ways! I had really, really great mentors. No matter what industry you come out of, you can’t replace having great mentors, especially for a developing leader.


My role can be highly technical but it’s honestly more often about leading people than doing math problems, which is why others with similar backgrounds come in and are successful. The military is one of only a handful of industry experiences that really teach both the academic and practical sides of leadership.  Are leaders made or born? You can certainly be born with traits that might make you more successful, but I think the skills you learn and practice are the real keys. In the military, you’re trained from the get-go on how to lead.  

I started off leading three people when I was 22, then ten and twenty, and now 350. But you don’t go from zero to 350.  You really need the opportunity to learn and develop leadership skills and characteristics.

In my case, I worked with and learned from people with strong values around ethics and accountability. My mentors showed me to take care of the team, provide cover for them when they made mistakes—coach rather than blame. I think of myself as a players’ coachyou’d have to ask my team if they think the same, of coursebut I try to lead by being present, and available as opposed to leading behind a closed door with written policies. I’m hands-on and more likely to be there if something's going wrong.

It's a combination of the practical experience, intentional professional education, and development you don’t get in other industries, and a leadership philosophy learned from terrific mentors.

What is the most challenging aspect of your day-to-day role?

It’s hard to pick one thing, but the most challenging part is probably also what I like best: the people. My business is in fixing things that are broken, in really simple termsbut people don’t stay fixed. If a transmission in your car goes out, they can fix it and you’re good to go. But with a personnel issue on your team, you don’t take the person to the shop and get them fixed. Each human is different and every situation needs to be handled differently.


The second biggest challenge is the demand on time.  Once the semester is in progress, 30-40% of the week is consumed by meetings and conference calls, and then I have this huge team that I need to meet with. If you’re breaking down even a 50-hour week, 30 hours are booked before Monday morning at eight a.m.

That creates real challenges strategically. It’s very difficult to find time to create new plans, launch a new initiative or work on something you want to bring to fruition three years from now. I also teach which takes up a big chunk of my time.

The issue of being pressed for time goes hand-in-hand with the new on-demand economy and rising expectations of today’s customers. Do you feel this growing pressure in facilities?

Basically, your email inbox is now a personal to-do list that anyone can add to any time they want. Anyone can send an email and ask you to do something; even if you’re going to delegate it, it consumes your time.

Culturally, when I was in my twenties, if I wanted to talk to someone senior in the organization, there was a socially acceptable way to do that. You didn't just pick up the phone and call or send an email, or even call someone’s boss's boss if you had a problem. With today’s societal norms, that happens all the time.

Social media doesn’t affect me personally in significant ways, but it certainly influences the way we manage our business in facilities. We definitely monitor social media and use it to look for complaints and trouble, plus to communicate with our customers.  A picture of an overflowing toilet on someone’s social media site screams, “Look, this is happening here, send someone out there.”

What’s the biggest lesson your students have taught you?

I love teachingit’s the whipped cream and cherry on top for me. I finished my ph.D. here in 2008 and was invited to join the Civil and Environmental Engineering department and faculty. I co-teach a core class to juniors and another class aimed at graduate students.

Teaching forces me to stay current in my discipline; modern students will absolutely challenge you if you’re not! In terms of my facilities role, it connects me directly with students. There are 13,000 students on our campus, yet it’s a group that traditionally facilities departments don’t hear from, which is a missed opportunity since they are the biggest portion of the population and physically present on campus way more than the faculty or staff, from ten a.m. to two a.m.

Students engage with the bricks and mortar, the football field, and all those physical pieces of the campus far more intimately than anyone, yet they don’t know who the facilities department is or how to reach us. If they do know how to reach you, it's often depersonalized; a phone number or email address. With teaching, I have a group I get to know very personally and that I have ongoing relationships with. 

"I think we’re missing something special if we don’t take the opportunity to engage with students."

One thing I’m really passionate about is this idea of “the university as a lab,” which is encouraging students and faculty to display art, run experiments, and build things, so that the actual campus is part of the learning environment and extends beyond the classroom. I honestly don’t know if I would have embraced that philosophy if I didn’t spend so much time in the classroom.

What do you mean by “The University as a Lab”?

It’s education and research happening not just in the areas you might think. It’s about being cross-disciplinary in terms of our approach and encouraging students to engage the campus. We’ve got a top five engineering school, top five drama school, and top five computer science school all in one placethere are really cool things happening. I had a student double majoring in mechanical engineering and flute!

You have these super interesting human beings that do what they’re passionate about. I think about what I was doing at 20 and I’m just like, wow!

Any recently-read business books that have influenced you?

The most interesting business-related book I've read recently is “The Business Ethics Field Guide.” It's less technical and walks people through ethics with a practical approach, getting at the personal value of integrity. The book presents challenges; for example, how do you stand up to someone in power who’s asking you to do something that’s unethical? I’m using it right now as a common-read with my leadership team.

My gross annual budget is close to $100 million a year--you have to have confidence that you are handling your responsibilities correctly.

You also wrote a book recently, correct?

Yes, it was a super fun process and a lot of work!  I didn’t know what I was getting myself into! The book is co-written with my ph.D. advisor and mentor, Chris Hendrickson. It’s a graduate-level textbook called "Fundamentals of Infrastructure Management."


What’s your favorite way to relax when you’re out of the office?

My wife would say, “When does that happen?” I like to travel, we have a timeshare in Hawaii and that's our happy place where we go to unwind. I have a 29-year-old son who is married with a one-year-old, and we have a 14-year-old daughter. We’ll all be there in March along with my mother-in-law and father-in-law.

I like to run, using that in the most generic possible termwhat I do technically meets the definition of running! I also enjoy playing racquetball. Physical activity helps me to decompress.

What do you foresee the future of higher ed looking like in 10-15 years?

That’s a crystal ball type of question. I don’t know that 10 years is long enough, but looking out 20 years, it feels to me that there has to be some consolidation. When you compare higher ed to other large distributed industries, like telecom or automotive, or airlines or computers manufacturing, they’ve all gone through major consolidations. It's clear higher ed is undergoing financial pressures.

It may be even harder to close a campus than an automotive manufacturing plant because of the social implications, but we’re all facing revenue challenges and increasing pressures to control expenses.  

From a facilities standpoint, these campuses represent large real estate portfolios with challenging levels of deferred maintenance and ever-rising operating expenses.  Something has to give especially at those institutions where rising expenses are coupled to declining enrollments.  I hope we’ll see a resurgence in state support for higher education, but unless something dramatic happens, I think there will be some significant consolidation of colleges and universities over the next 20 years.

Hannah Chenoweth

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Hannah Chenoweth is a writer for influence group. Passionate about collaborating with thought leaders in real estate, design, construction & facilities management.

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