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The last two years have given higher ed facilities leaders something they’ve always deserved: a seat at the table. Long left out of some of the most important conversations about their institutions’ futures, they now have an essential voice in those discussions (even if academic leaders still have a… somewhat louder voice).

In a recent town hall at the Higher Ed Facilities Forum, titled “Where Do We Go From Here?”, three facilities leaders discussed how the last two years changed their roles, what they’re doing with their newfound prominence, and what challenges they still face. Moderated by James Ireland, Senior Account Executive at Gordian, the panelists included Dave Irvin, Senior Associate Vice President for Facilities at Florida State; Alexander Kohnen, Interim VP of Facilities Management at Arizona State University; and Paige Smith, Vice Chancellor for Administrative Services at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville

Taking a Seat

The session began with a discussion of how each panelist’s role has changed over the last two years. Kohnen reflected that at the beginning of the pandemic, his job hardly changed at all: "We were still maintaining facilities, with the exception that there was no one there,” he said. As his team plugged away at deferred maintenance, he found that ASU’s academic leaders were increasingly interested in the way facilities intersect with academic operations: "How are we going to fit these kids in the classroom and socially distance?" they asked him. "How are we going to sanitize in a way that makes people feel comfortable?” Suddenly he had a seat at the table. 

 

Irvin agreed, observing that the pandemic accelerated a trend towards a broader understanding of facilities departments as critical to the university’s mission—rather than as a mere on-call service provider. “Way back, facilities were really just a cost center,” he reflected. “And we had moved to being a service center, but still sort of a support function. What we saw during COVID, and I hope that we continue to see after COVID, is that we moved from being a service center to being a pillar of support for the university.” 

For Smith, the pandemic forced her team to mediate input from UW-Platteville’s essential workers, its leadership, and its human resources department, ensuring both that everything was run safely and that employees coming to campus felt safe. “We tried really hard to keep those communications open and ensure that everyone understood the value of the work," she said. 

New Opportunities, Missed Opportunities

Asked about the future of space use, Kohnen argued that the issue is driven by a stark generational divide. Whereas university leaders tend to believe in the necessity of in-person learning, younger student populations eagerly gravitate towards remote classes. This divide can stall conversations about space management, especially when it comes to costly buildings that may not be needed if hybrid learning continues. To make matters worse, a refusal to embrace remote strategies can drive away talent: Kohnen just lost a purchasing agent to another university, which let her work from home in Arizona. “I really worry that higher ed, in its brick and mortar institution, is missing an opportunity here,” he said.  

On the bright side, higher status means more power to shape an institution’s future. While academic leaders still run the show, Irvin said, the CFO’s increasing voice in high-level conversations offers space for facilities leaders to provide input. Kohnen agreed, adding that more collaborative conversations about space design will ultimately create better pedagogic outcomes. 

For Smith, a seat at the table still comes with the challenge of fighting for state funding for facilities work. This year, she’s pushing officials to let her demolish a handful of old, unsafe buildings taking up resources and labor. “We are truly reliant on ourselves in order to try to address our problems,” she said. 

Changing the Conversation About Deferred Maintenance

Turning toward deferred maintenance, Ireland asked the panelists about their strategies for earning administrative buy-in: is it more productive to point out problems or skip straight to proposing solutions? 

HEFF21-Miami-Town-Hall

UW-Platteville, Florida State University and Arizona State University

Irvin said he’s learned to reframe the question entirely, pitching deferred maintenance instead as strategic investments in mission-critical needs. “You really have to say, if you invest in the building, here's how the metrics will improve," he said. Khonen agreed, comparing deferred maintenance figures to the national debt: “Nobody thinks about it anymore; it’s just too big.” But when you tie projects to the university’s mission-critical needs—like enrollment, retention, and research capabilities—you just might get results. 

At UW-Platteville, getting major work approved often requires buy-in from the counties that own various campus buildings. “We have to really create strong partnerships and relationships with the county officials to help move those branch campuses forward, because those buildings have also not been renovated in many, many years and the counties just don't have the funds right now to invest in them,” she said. “It’s another issue of planning, tying it to strategy and involving the right people at the table.”

Sustainability: There’s Still Work to be Done

Asked how the last two years have changed conversations around sustainability, Kohnen recalled a tough realization ASU’s non-facilities leaders had early in the pandemic. “I think they thought when the pandemic happened, we’d be able to cut utility costs with the push of a button,” he said. “Fifty percent of our buildings still use pneumatic controls, so we had people out there adjusting thermostats that still had mercury switches in them.” 

Now, there’s more recognition that ASU isn’t quite where it wants to be in terms of sustainability, and that getting there will require a bigger investment in IoT capabilities. At the same time, supply shocks have wreaked havoc on the university’s recycling initiatives: without compostable dining containers, the amount of garbage it sends to the landfill has gone up for the first time since 2007. 

All three panelists acknowledged that student populations are committed to sustainability initiatives, even if they require sacrifice. Smith recalled a movement by UW-Platteville students to bring green energy to the campus: they found private funding, received the state’s approval, and now UW-Platteville has a 2.4-megawatt solar array it will be able to pay off in 15 years. 

Turning Challenges into Opportunities

Each panelist shared their approach to a problem on everyone’s mind: labor shortages. At UW-Platteville, Smith is trying to raise the campus minimum wage from $12 per hour to $13.50, and eventually to $15 in the next two years. She’s also implementing cross-training initiatives, like training custodial workers with the dining staff. 

Irvin, meanwhile, is looking to expand FSU's mentoring and apprenticeship initiatives, while broadening the skill sets he looks for in prospective employees: rather than focus solely on technical qualifications, he figures that a focus on soft skills will help diversify the workforce while filling it with people eager to master the technical side of things. Finally, Kohnen argued for investing in the workforce’s future by steering people to trade schools and training programs. 

What do the panelists expect to be their biggest challenge in the coming years? Inadequate budgets, workforce development challenges, staff burnout, centralizing decision-making, and continuing to provide high-quality services amidst reduced funding and labor shortages—all different sides of the same coin.

“They’re all interrelated, right?” Irvin said, turning a negative into a positive: “We now have a seat at the table, a much more robust seat than we anticipated. I think the challenge—or maybe the opportunity—is how do we continue to earn that? How do we show that as facilities teams, we can continue to respond? Not just changing filters and cleaning doors, but responding the way we did with COVID. I think that's where we're gonna see the biggest change in our profession.”

Steve Manning

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Steve Manning is a journalist based in Idaho. When he's not writing, he can usually be found at the theater or taking his dog on a hike. If he could only go to one restaurant for the rest of his life, it would be Al's Place in San Francisco.

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