The Facilities division in higher education has a mixed reputation. On one hand, it oversees work critical to keeping campus running: ensuring buildings are operational and the physical environment is comfortable. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a helpful parallel, as Facilities is the unit most directly responsible for overseeing community members’ basic physiological and safety needs.
Because so much of what Facilities owns is invisible to customers—work happening behind the walls, underground, and on the roof—customers do not value the work Facilities employees perform. As a centrally shared resource, Facilities hears from frustrated customers when issues arise or equipment fails but receives little credit when campus runs smoothly. As a result, senior Facilities officers (SFOs) report that their unit is often the first to absorb cuts when their institution faces budget shortfalls. (There is a chicken/egg argument to be made about whether insufficient funding necessitated lower service levels. An analysis of IPEDS data shows that investment in operations and maintenance dropped 8% between 1987 and 2013 at public institutions and grew the slowest at private institutions across the same time period. By comparison, investment in student services increased 54% at publics and 108% at privates.)
As institutions pivoted quickly in response to the coronavirus last March, Facilities was central to performing many mission-critical activities. SFOs navigated the clearing of residence halls and formally closed out entire academic and administrative buildings. They also had to quickly update procedures to disinfect spaces, not to mention choreograph a new shift schedule to keep essential Facilities personnel as safe as possible.
Facilities leaders acted decisively with a clear goal in mind: ramp up disinfection efforts and close out buildings to reduce the potential spread of the virus.
As challenging as emergency operations were in the spring, those actions pale in comparison to the work required for repopulating campus. Creating a plan for fall is not as straightforward as reversing those steps. Some community members like research faculty will return in a phased manner. Other community members may not return for the foreseeable future.
Given the complexity of de-densifying campus, complying with health regulations, and reducing the risk of infections, SFOs continue to play a critical role in the university’s response. However, Facilities leaders are struggling to communicate key messages about repopulating campus to other leaders. They see a disconnect between the ideal reopening plan and what Facilities is reasonably set up to accomplish. To support repopulation conversations, this article captures five messages every Facilities leader needs the rest of campus to understand.
1. Most campuses never actually closed—and Facilities staff were critical to continued operations
Higher education leaders have been careful to describe their campuses as operating in a limited capacity rather than closed, as many functions (and in some cases, the buildings supporting them) continue. For instance, based on an EAB survey conducted in April, most institutions did not completely close out residence halls. While 49% of respondents had fewer than 10% of residence halls occupied, nearly a quarter reported that over 50% of residence halls remain occupied. And for mission-critical reasons: in many cases, residence halls housed students who were unable to travel to their permanent residence during the pandemic or who are experiencing homelessness.
For Facilities, this translated into a continued presence on campus—likely largest percentage of the workforce still physically on campus after the transition to remote instruction. Forty-nine percent of respondents reported that more than 40% Facilities employees were on campus at any given time.
On average, what percentage of Facilities/Estates staff are on campus at any given time?
The reality is that many Facilities staff cannot complete their work remotely. While most faculty and staff completed work safely from home, Facilities employees continued to show up on campus to perform tasks like daily (or more) disinfection of high-touch areas, emergency maintenance, and upkeep of critical utility systems. In fact, these continued efforts have enabled universities to bring back some faculty and staff during the summer.
2. Even before the pandemic, Facilities budgets were strained by the ballooning deferred maintenance backlog
In a typical operating environment, the Facilities budget is already stretched thin. Data from Sightlines indicates that a single maintenance technician oversees approximately 91,000 gross square feet (GSF) at public institutions and over 95,000 GSF at private institutions.
To put that in perspective, the median square footage of a house in the United States is 2,169 square feet, meaning a maintenance FTE is responsible for the operation of over 40 homes.
The cumulative impact of chronically underfunding maintenance is reflected in the ballooning of the deferred maintenance backlog. In both the United and Canada, the backlog has grown faster than the rate of inflation for over a decade. EAB has seen growing recognition among senior leaders that deferred maintenance is one of the biggest challenges facing higher education, but even pre-COVID-19 few campuses had made a dent.
One maintenance technician is responsible for the care and maintenance of equipment across an area the size of over 40 homes
Average deferred maintenance backlog per square foot
Private institutions have seen a 16% increase in the DM backlog per square foot from 2007 to 2015—8.6% faster than inflation
Public institutions have seen a 24% increase in their DM backlog per square foot from 2007 to 2015—66% faster than inflation
Canadian institutions have seen a 56% increase in their DM backlog per square foot from 2000 to 2015—70% faster than inflation in Canada
3. Custodial staffing levels were barely sufficient to achieve a minimum level of cleanliness prior to the pandemic—and almost no campus can achieve heightened disinfection standards without adding more custodians
In a normal operating environment, one custodian on average is responsible for 31,000 GSF at private institutions and 38,000 GSF at publics (equal to cleaning 14 houses every day). COVID-19 has put strained university operating budgets under more pressure.
An EAB survey of chief business officers (CBOs) indicates that the median estimated cost of responding to COVID was $7 million as of mid-April—or 3.7% of an institution’s annual operating expenditures. While CBOs are currently exploring a range of cost containment strategies, many SFOs report expected budget cuts of 5 to 15%.
While unavoidable, these budget cuts are poised to put a disproportionate strain on Facilities as campuses prepare to welcome students and faculty back in the fall. The Center for Disease Control’s reopening guidance recommends that high-touch surfaces be cleaned “at least daily” (not to mention the extensive checklist of activities for reopening buildings after a shutdown to ensure issues like Legionella or mold are not present).
One custodian on average cleans the equivalent of 14 houses every shift
Based on a poll EAB conducted across late May and early June, 85% of institutions reported they would need to increase custodial staffing to meet disinfection standards. A quarter of institutions reported they’d need at least 31% more custodians than they currently employ.
Assuming you could temporarily stop all non-essential custodial activities to meet disinfection standards, would you still need more custodians than you currently have?
By comparison, 67% of SFOs report they will receive the same budget or less than the previous year for fiscal year 2020-2021. Unable to staff up, SFOs face the impossible challenge of “trimming the fat” from custodial service levels even as customer expectations for visible cleaning activity increase.
4. Facilities leaders are pulled in the wrong direction by community-driven “quick fixes” that actually won’t work
Repopulation conversations are unprecedented in their scope and novelty, making “quick fix” solutions particularly appealing. But recommendations for how to prepare the built environment almost always have limitations. For instance, consider the question of how to improve indoor air quality. It can be easy for community members to reference CDC guidelines and call for tactics like opening windows—but these almost always have limitations. The table below unpacks this further.
Potential Tactics to Reduce the Risk of Airborne Transmission
Increase the amount of outside air used in system (rather than recirculating inside air)
Open windows to boost ventilation
Improve air filtration to the highest possible level
Older buildings not designed for 100% outside air intake; for instance, older systems may require the air be heated before it’s cooled for use as air conditioning to control humidity—meaning system will run more, require more maintenance, and potentially shut down.
- While this helps ventilation, it reduces the HVAC system’s ability to comfortably control air quality and temperature (or requires the system to work harder to cool a space, further exacerbating maintenance challenges).
- In extreme environments, sensitive occupants may be irritated by pollutants.
Better air filters (i.e., MERV-13) are designed for modern systems that can push more air. Many HVAC systems in higher education cannot handle that volume of air flow.
The quick fixes proposed by community members and vendors can take on cartoonish dimensions, with recommendations ranging from making all doors and fixtures touchless (an almost impossible and impossibly expensive feat by fall) to installing UV lights across campus entrances and HVAC systems. (Note that the CDC explicitly states in its Cleaning and Disinfecting Your Facility guidelines that it cannot confirm the efficacy of tools such as UV lights.)
5. Facilities leaders must wrestle with public health recommendations that are sometimes contradictory and often unclear
Between the return of researchers to campus and preparation to offer some face-to-face instruction in the fall, repopulating campus has arguably begun. Facilities must physically prepare a building for reoccupation after a shutdown to ensure issues like Legionella or mold are not a concern. However, the jury is still out on some major questions, such as how great a risk airborne transmission is. (Notably, ASHRAE, the CDC, and the World Health Organization are in agreement that the risk is large enough for measures to be taken.)
As a result, Facilities leaders across the globe are now left wondering how to interpret the latest research and guidance. What constitute reasonable precaution, especially with a building portfolio as variable in age and condition as in higher education? As it stands, SFOs are taking the summer months to pull forward as much work as possible. Those with capital dollars to spare are investing them in infrastructural upgrades that improve air quality. More cash-strapped campuses are completing as much preventive maintenance as possible ahead of the fall. And yes, some campuses are partnering with new vendors to procure tools and supplies that will help keep campus as clean as possible. For instance, one reported investing in a protective film to coat high-touch surfaces that reduces the likelihood of microbial growth. Another will install individual air filtration units in every dorm room. But because guidelines continue to evolve in tandem with new research, these investments are not foolproof protections for community members.
Ultimately, the challenge for both SFOs and institutions writ large is the triangulation between budgetary constraints, evolving public health guidelines and recommendations, and how to reasonably plan for operating the campus environment during a pandemic. But the calculus plays out differently for Facilities divisions due to a mix of underfunding, reduced service levels, and misunderstandings about the ease of preparing the physical environment. So repopulation conversations must weigh realistic Facilities capacity against how all parties—including students, faculty, and other staff members—can share in the responsibility for keeping everyone as safe as possible.