Faculty-student interactions are critical for student success. But the setup of faculty offices at many campuses—a long row of closed doors—can intimidate students, especially new or first-generation students. As a result, the design discourages meaningful collaboration between students and faculty, writes Jeffrey Selingo, founding director of the Academy for Innovative Higher Education Leadership, for the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Selingo acknowledges that faculty offices can be an emotional topic. But he argues the tough conversation about redesigning faculty spaces is worth it if the new design improves student outcomes.
Selingo offers three strategies for designing inclusive, approachable faculty offices:
Strategy 1: Convenient, open offices and “huddle spaces”
This strategy encourages faculty-student discussions before and after class—a time often treated like unofficial office hours. Students and professors can meet in “huddle spaces” instead of crowded hallways, then later move to a more private location if necessary.
Cornell Tech employed this strategy and designed an academic building on campus with no private faculty offices. Instead, they built smaller rooms that others can use when the faculty member is out. Then, Cornell used the space they saved to create huddle rooms and conference rooms throughout the building.
Strategy 2: Neutral spaces outside of the office
This strategy allows students and faculty to meet spontaneously in a public space, like the library, without scheduling a meeting or trekking to private faculty offices. Richland College designed its Science Corner so that faculty offices surround the tutoring space, promoting “serendipitous interactions between students visiting the center and professors in their offices.” Student visits to faculty offices increased by 57% the first year the design was implemented.
Hamilton College created a similar space in its math department. Students reacted positively, noting that the redesign not only made faculty more approachable, but also transformed their perceptions of math into a more collaborative and inclusive discipline.
Strategy 3: Diverse spaces for diverse work
This strategy tailors meeting areas to the type of work being done. It allows students and faculty to efficiently use a combination of open areas, huddle rooms, and private rooms for different types of interactions.
The University of Washington Bothell renovated a campus building to diversify faculty workspaces—creating both private offices and open-concept spaces—to try and satisfy each faculty member’s needs.
Still, not every campus needs to undergo costly renovations to facilitate faculty-student interactions. Faculty can make simple design changes to make their traditionally private offices more welcoming and approachable, and make an effort to interact with students around campus.
For example, one professor at Miami University replaced his office desk with a round table to encourage students to come in and work, collaborate, and debate. He also offers private office hours in 10-minute blocks, often taking students on a walk around campus in lieu of meeting in his office.
Read more about redesigning faculty offices
Institutions hope that incentives and space charges will motivate academics to better utilize or give back space. However, space charges have little impact when they aren't directed toward a specific type of space. Incentives that specifically target a particular kind of space help academic leaders determine what actions to take to improve utilization.
Toronto's Facilities unit voluntarily moved out of private offices and into low-walled cubicles positioned to maximize the natural light on staff desks. As a result, they reduced the total number of private offices by 30% and decreased workstation size by 25%—while boosting staff satisfaction. Now other departments are following suit.