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Campus contraction: UND facilities planning includes future demolitions

Higher education is changing, a condition increasingly reflected by the physical features of the UND campus. The university is now in the midst of a master planning process for facilities. The process isn't new to campus, and the current run inte...

Robertson/Sayre Hall and Corwin-Larimore Hall are both on the list of offline status buildings on the UND campus. UND has announced its intent to demolish the buildings. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
Robertson/Sayre Hall and Corwin-Larimore Hall are both on the list of offline status buildings on the UND campus. UND has announced its intent to demolish the buildings. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Higher education is changing, a condition increasingly reflected by the physical features of the UND campus.

The university is now in the midst of a master planning process for facilities. The process isn’t new to campus, and the current run intends to merge similar efforts conducted in the past with a broader strategic plan set into motion last year. So far, UND observers have seen that facilities plan manifest in large part by empty space -- the end result of a series of demolitions that have razed seven campus buildings in the past year.
The voids on campus haven’t gone without comment, and some faculty members aired grievance just weeks ago at a campus forum dedicated to outlining the broad arc of how the next 30 years could reshape the physical shape of UND, if not its spirit altogether.

If the meeting and last summer’s demolitions were a taste of a new era, there are more dishes soon to arrive. UND leaders announced in late 2017 their intent to demolish two additional buildings on University Avenue. Those halls, Corwin/Larimore and Robertson/Sayre, are the last remaining vestiges of Wesley College, a private Methodist school that once shared space on the Grand Forks campus.

Wellesley has been defunct for decades. But for much of the time since its properties were absorbed by UND, the state school campus was in a period of expansion, adding new buildings to a growing university footprint. That strategy, for the most part, has come to an end, as evidenced by master plan goals to cut back on square footage while tightening up the campus core for a denser and more vibrant center.

UND facilities chief Mike Pieper has overseen the physical elements of the university since 2016. As he tells it, the change from expanding to reducing isn’t actually a change at all.

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“I think for higher education in general, I wouldn’t call it a shift, but there’s always a need for what some people would classify as modernization and enhancement of existing facilities,” Pieper said. “Sometimes it’s feasible to do it through renovations and sometimes it’s not.”

The planning now happening on campus is rooted in work done prior, both at UND and across the North Dakota University System. The current iteration of the master plan for facilities is a continued refinement of a plan released in 2016 under Dave Chakraborty, the facilities head that came before Pieper. And that plan finds its own origins in a push that came down two years earlier from on high -- the NDUS offices.

Rick Tonder, the system’s director of facilities planning, said the NDUS conducted a broad master plan through 2014 with funding appropriated the year before by the state Legislature. Tonder, who previously worked at UND, said consultants retained by the system office to guide the planning process took a number of areas into account, including space utilization on the campus level.

“Subsequently, their recommendations were that master planning and strategic planning should be a top-down, bottom-up effort,” Tonder said, linking form and function for academic facilities.

The consultant study led to a process of evaluating campuses on the sum of those parts, and prompting school leaders to create their own master plans that could be used when making funding requests to the Legislature.

For the most part, Tonder said, the facilities side of master planning looked closely at space utilization and deferred maintenance costs. But the broader idea was to integrate those concepts with deeper concerns such as program needs, campus safety and adherence to the system’s own strategic interests.

“The higher ed landscape is evolving,” Tonder said. “The basics of -- what I’ll call instruction in critical thinking -- are probably the same as they’ve been since the time of Plato and Aristotle, so some things stay the same. On the other hand, the means and methods of teaching today tell us a lot about what are the shape of facilities should be for the future -- and judging if the facilities are in that shape.”

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