WEST LAFAYETTE — This time a year ago, most organizational decisions at Purdue University focused on safely reconfiguring the campus learning environment amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Purdue passed that logistical test with flying colors. It placed more students in the classroom than any other Big Ten university during the 2020-21 academic year — while having no COVID-19 cases traced back to a classroom.

Now come a new set of considerations related to campus density.

As the pandemic subsides, Purdue’s leaders are working to determine the necessary steps to safely create a new normal in the post-COVID world. They do so while preparing to welcome the largest freshman class in University history into the student body, meeting the high demand for a Purdue education while maintaining a high-quality experience for students.

These efforts begin with one essential responsibility, says Provost Jay Akridge.

“One of the most fundamental things we do, of course, is to make sure we have adequate instructional and student-support capacity,” Akridge says. “So we are making major commitments to advisors, teaching assistants, lecturers, faculty — that whole gamut of student-support personnel — to make sure we can deliver the residential education that our students and their families expect.”

Making these adjustments is nothing new for Purdue. When the expected class of more than 10,000 first-year students arrives for the fall semester, it will be the fourth time in the last five years that Purdue has welcomed a record-setting freshman class.

By this point, Jenna Rickus, vice provost for teaching and learning, is well-equipped to identify the total University personnel necessary to accommodate a given number of students.

“My spreadsheets were ready,” Rickus says. “I know how all of those roles scale with students. I have those models. So thinking about and defining the scaling of student resources to number of students, we’ve been through that thinking before and had done the math. We could sit down and calculate pretty quickly where and how many positions we needed to invest in.”

When Purdue announced its record freshman class, it also revealed that searches had begun for 151 tenure-track and clinical faculty hires, 37 of which were new positions. Likewise, Rickus says the University will scale its academic advising hires to support the enrollment growth.

From Math to Geometry

Once Purdue’s leaders match their personnel totals with their students’ needs, they must shift from doing math to geometry. From classrooms to dining halls to housing, they must identify spaces to accommodate these students.

Again, considerable recent experience — including an academic year marked by pandemic-related adaptations — helped Purdue develop plans to address each issue. A year in which approximately 70% of all Purdue employees worked remotely on a full- or part-time basis provided valuable insight on how to optimize the available space on campus, and on new tactics that might better serve students.

Some large lecture courses will now be held in non-traditional academic settings, including the Honors College’s Great Room and even the sanctuary of the former University Church, which the Purdue Research Foundation (PRF) bought in 2014. The University acquired the building from PRF and leased out the space in recent years. Purdue Musical Organizations was among the tenants.

“We’re looking at how we can turn certain spaces into active-learning spaces where we can get 180 or more students in there, and one of the big opportunities is at University Church,” says Rob Wynkoop, associate vice president of auxiliary services.

Wynkoop notes that Purdue is preparing to develop a classroom master plan that will outline instructional-space needs for the next 10-20 years. For now, the University Church will be retrofitted to create a 273-seat classroom.

“We’re pretty confident we can renovate the University Church into a large classroom for students and invest a little money and technology to make a great space for students to learn and for faculty to teach,” he says. “With a minimal amount of infrastructure and investment, we can turn that into space that’s particularly needed for both fall and spring semesters.”

In addition, Purdue has plans to expand seating capacity in two classrooms in the Wilmeth Active Learning Center (WALC) to accommodate larger classes. WALC B058 will increase from 102 seats to 149, while WALC B066 will increase from 84 seats to 132.

Purdue students will also benefit from traditional instructional settings that will either open for the first time at full capacity this fall or will do so within the next few years.

The Engineering and Polytechnic Gateway Complex is scheduled to open for instructional use in January 2023, while Chaney-Hale Hall of Science opened last year at a reduced capacity due to COVID-19. However, Chaney-Hale’s 111,000-square-foot STEM teaching laboratory should be completely open to students this fall.

“It’s almost new capacity for us because last year utilization was compromised with the COVID restrictions,” Akridge says. “Not only is the space a dramatic physical upgrade from our old instructional labs, but it changes the way we teach because of the way the technology is embedded through the facility. That building is a terrific example of what a 21st-century instructional laboratory should be.”

Just as Purdue replaced outdated laboratories with the cutting-edge STEM building, its student-life leaders recognized after a year of COVID-related adaptation that some of Purdue’s dining policies were best left in the past.

Gone are rules dictating that students could enjoy all they cared to eat at a campus dining hall, so long as they ate inside the facility. Vice Provost for Student Life Beth McCuskey says Purdue will extend the policy that permits students to take food outside the building to eat elsewhere.

“Not only will that help students maintain their flexible schedule and be able to get what they need and go, it’s also going to help with the density issues because we won’t have to worry with as much seating,” McCuskey says.

A fully functional dining court in Purdue Memorial Union will also help reduce the congestion in the residence hall dining facilities; however, renovations to the dining-level basement floor of the Union will not be complete until January. In the meantime, Wynkoop and McCuskey believe the opportunity for students to continue to use meal-plan swipes in campus retail options will alleviate the bulk of traffic concerns.

McCuskey says it will also help to have available outdoor spaces like the popular location along Third Street that features patio furniture, fire pits and string lights.

“There are ways to mine what we did to adapt this last year and take that into the future,” she says. “Outdoor spaces, I think, are definitely going to be here for the long haul. All the outdoor dining that’s around, we’re just activating things all over the place. I think that will go a long way toward creating those social places, especially as we grow. One of the ways to grow is to grow outside, as well.”

While vacant outdoor space is plentiful around the Purdue campus, the University’s residence halls will once again be at capacity.

New residential buildings and large apartment complexes on the edge of campus have helped Purdue absorb increased enrollments in recent years. But McCuskey and her student-life team had to identify creative solutions when approximately 1,800 first-year students more than expected accepted admission offers and paid deposits for fall.

McCuskey’s team selected approximately 500 rooms that would have been single-occupancy residences that will now become doubles. As a last resort, a small number of doubles will become triples.

In addition, Purdue Village will be home to more than 300 students who will occupy its two-bedroom apartments, four at a time. Finally, Purdue established leasing partnerships with approximately a dozen apartment complexes near campus, where more than 900 students will reside.

“These are off-campus apartments that we will basically have in the university fold,” McCuskey says. “We will staff them similarly, so we will have an RA, social engagement and overall support. The experience is as close to living on campus as we can possibly get it, but the students will live in apartment-type accommodations as opposed to a room.”

Seeking Student Engagement

While simultaneously adapting classroom space, dining space and housing space in order to welcome the newest Boilermakers, Purdue’s leaders acknowledge that it will be more important than ever to tailor experiences to fit individual students’ needs and interests.

As always, Purdue encourages incoming students to participate in Boiler Gold Rush and in any of the 1,000-plus campus organizations because of the many benefits associated with social connection. The goal is to provide enjoyable interactions that will prompt Boilermakers to someday look back fondly on their days at their alma mater.

“For us, it’s about creating experiences for students,” McCuskey says. “It’s far more than just having a bed, a place to sleep. We’re making sure that every person who’s living on campus has a relationship with a staff member where we’re helping them navigate through, we’re creating opportunities to meet other people and to have the absolute best Boilermaker experience.”

After extensively studying how new students adjusted to life at Purdue during the pandemic, this is another area where an academic year with unprecedented remote engagement provides valuable direction for fall 2021 and into the future. The University is better prepared than ever before to provide the support that students need to succeed.

“We’re balancing these things, thinking about immediate needs in fall, but also thinking, ‘How do we apply all the lessons? How do we re-engineer our processes, technology, data to make sure we scale and grow that individual student engagement?’ ” Rickus says. “You worry about how you provide safety nets for individual students to catch them and support them in real time, at scale. And now is a good time because of the way that data and technology have been advancing. We learned a lot during COVID about what the next generation could look like and applying those lessons from COVID to student success.”

Another Approach to Space

While many Purdue leaders train their focus on pleasing the University’s primary customers — its students and their families — Brian Edelman, Purdue Research Foundation president, faces a different set of client considerations.

“For us, that could be someone who’s looking to build a building or take space or lease a technology or a firm that we might be investing with in the endowment,” Edelman says. “So we’ve got to meet the client’s needs. We want to do this in a way of envisioning work that no one has envisioned like this since probably World War II.”

PRF joins multiple campus units in providing greater work flexibility for employees by maintaining the remote- and hybrid-work arrangements — addressed in the first installment of this ongoing series about the future of work at Purdue — that began during the pandemic.

There will be logistical hurdles that Purdue must clear to ensure remote workers have reliable internet access and other technological tools necessary to complete their work away from campus. Edelman says supervisors must also stay in tune with employees’ emotional needs and focus on results rather than on when employees work and the length of time they spend working.

“There’s going to have to be more flexibility and inclusion of the more complex lives that I think people are going to have associated with hybrid work,” Edelman says. “But again, I think that increased complexity of life is going to lead to more pleasant life for people as they juggle their work and their life.”

The flexible work setup also benefits PRF. With fewer employees occupying its buildings on a daily basis, the organization was able to rethink its space occupancy.

The Foundation’s IT, human resources and finance teams now work out of the Kurz Purdue Technology Center (KPTC), while its outward-facing units — the Office of Technology Commercialization, Purdue Foundry, alliance management, marketing and media and economic development — are now located at the Convergence Center in Purdue’s Discovery Park District.

As a result of its efforts to more efficiently utilize its office space, PRF reduced its occupied square footage in KPTC by 15,609 feet, in part because it moved 16 staff members out of the building. Meanwhile, PRF will occupy the same 15,319 square feet of space in Convergence that it did pre-COVID, but with 77 employees occupying that space — an increase of 24.

“We all felt that the best way to demarcate that we are doing something different was to do something different in physical space for those that will be in physical space,” Edelman says. “If we just all had people move back into where we were before the pandemic, I do not think we would be able to capture what we’re trying to capture. So it is more than symbolic, but it clearly makes a concrete demarcation of what was and what now will be.”

A Glimpse of Purdue’s Future

As Purdue continues its transition into the post-pandemic era, it will use the experiences of the last year as opportunities for growth. The University recently announced a “Future of Work” task force that will develop strategies to support an increasingly virtual workforce. The group’s focus on space optimization will only intensify as the upcoming year provides valuable new insights.

Perhaps Purdue will be able to remodel an existing campus facility to house its popular data science program instead of constructing a new multimillion-dollar building. Maybe it will someday consolidate an array of student services in one centralized location, allowing students to use their time more effectively.

Broadening President Mitch Daniels’ resolute stance since the pandemic began, University leadership will identify additional innovative methods of delivering the greatest possible return on future Boilermakers’ tuition dollars and a flexible, supportive work environment for its employees.

Purdue does not have all the answers about how cutting-edge universities will function differently in the future. Nobody does. But in true Boilermaker fashion, the University will keep following the data and testing hypotheses until it reaches conclusions that benefit the greatest number of stakeholders.

“There’s a very entrepreneurial aspect to what we’re doing,” Edelman says. “If you’re innovating, you’re going to make mistakes. Learn from them. We’re going to make mistakes from a supervisor’s perspective, and we’re going to get better. We’re going to make mistakes from a space perspective. We’re going to figure out what those are and work on it.

“What I’ve told people is a year from now — the same way that a year ago we had no idea how we were going to operate 100% remotely — we’re going to look back and say, ‘Oh my gosh, look what we’ve learned about operating in hybrid mode.’ Because we do not, at all, believe that we have all the answers. We know we don’t. But we’re going to push ourselves into that new world and learn.”

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