ten minutes of magic

The art of college admissions is a unique combination of perspiration, science, and mystery.  Months – sometimes years – of cultivation, college fairs, and counselor visits prepare a road that includes tens of thousands of dollars of publications, web development, prospect lists, and client data collection.  Seemingly endless hours of communication in every imaginable form seek to build that connection that will result in one more student being added to the next freshman class.  With attractive academic programs in place and a reasonable possibility that a financial package can be arranged, the critical day has arrived with two primary questions remaining in the student’s mind –  Will I be happy here? and Do I feel at home?

Alvernia University has been intentional about making all campus entry points as ordered and welcoming as possible.

Alvernia University has been intentional about making all campus entry points as ordered and welcoming as possible.

I know you can picture it. Passing through the local neighborhood, the car pulls up to the campus gate.  Sitting in the back seat gazing past her parents’ heads, she looks out the windows in all directions. Thoughts race through her mind while her senses are flooded with impressions. She almost hears the guard’s words as he indifferently points down the road in the direction of a few industrial signs. Dad drives on and Mom turns and asks, ”˜Well, what do you think?’    Her only response ”“ ”˜Can we go now?’  The visit is over.

This is not a unique or unusual story. A number of years ago, I personally drove a thousand miles from Chicago to Connecticut, only to have my daughter merely look out the car window and say those memorable words ”“ ”˜Cancel the appointment. I’m not going here.’ That moment left me with a vivid and permanent sense of the psychological and aesthetic fragility of the college admissions process. And I must confess, my immediate response was perhaps a bit un-fatherly.

Everything that comes before a prospective student’s visit to campus is mere prologue and can be reduced to irrelevance in 10 minutes or less.  Huge investments of money and human resources are not able to answer the questions Will I be happy here? and Do I feel at home? the way the first 10 minutes on campus inevitably will. These first impressions of campus and community cannot be easily undone by slick websites and publications or a counselor’s promise of happiness.

Will I be happy here?

This question is actually a very rich and deeply human question.  Already believing that the college has the desired academic program and that it is likely affordable, the prospect of happiness is determined by the possibility of friendships and camaraderie – not being alone in laughter and tears ”“ and maybe even meeting someone very special.  The four-year college experience embraces all aspects of being human, as does the richest meaning  of happiness. The prospective student’s first human encounters, as well as those that will follow on tours and in classrooms and residence halls, will be the stuff that will determine the answer to the question of happiness.  Each will be judged by its sincerity and its authenticity.   Conclusions will be drawn rapidly and will be very difficult to reverse.

Do I feel at home?

This question is initially an aesthetic question.  While this may involve a conscious awareness of the surrounding environment, for many it is not conscious at all.  It is haptic.  It is a physical and aesthetic awareness that comes through the pores and permeates our self as we ”˜feel’ the three-dimensionality of place.  Quite often a person can’t even give an adequate explanation for why he or she doesn’t feel comfortable or doesn’t feel at home.  They just don’t.  Thus the response ”“ Can we go now? ”“ and nothing more.  While all this may appear very irrational to parents, particularly after a drive of a thousand miles, it makes perfect sense to the student who knows the place just isn’t right. Here is where we see the importance of a college being able to stand in the shoes of prospective students and their families. We must constantly ask ourselves what they are seeing and feeling, from both the perspective of a young adult and a parent.

Every college and university president should regularly walk the path of prospective students and their parents. Put the board room, the faculty meeting, the donor call, the yield or retention numbers out of your mind, and open your eyes to all that you pass through daily, without seeing. See and feel the surroundings. See what is working and what isn’t.

Is the paint on the curbs flaking off? Are trash cans where they don’t belong? Are they empty? Are sidewalks broken and are the edges of walks, gardens, and lawns clean and tended to? Is signage clear and fresh or faded and industrial? As you are thinking of the next great project, are the small inexpensive elements of the campus being forgotten? What is happening with the voids between buildings, the pass-through areas, the inexpensive opportunities?

Ask yourself, What is getting in the way of the beauty and the genius of our campus ”“ physical and human? Then remove it. For though you may not see it ”“ your prospective students and their parents will.

As a president, in all these matters your community will follow your lead. They are constantly asking themselves what you are thinking and what you want. Don’t hesitate to make it very clear and widely understood, I want the first the 10 minutes on our campus to be magic.

sherpa required?

The percentage of college and university campuses where finding one’s way requires the aid of a Sherpa guide is astoundingly high. Since the vast percentage of campuses were not designed in the manner of a contemporary planned community, the logic of the campus’ layout is often not easy to discern.   In fact, to the visitor it is often opaque. While their charm often lies in their meandering park-like walks and randomly discoverable hidden treasures, the first-time guest is frequently badly in need of assistance.

Merely getting into the campus can be quite confusing. In conversations with first-time visitors on my own campuses, their tales of their initial moments of disorientation were often revealing and more than a little embarrassing to me as the president. “Is this the main gate or a service entrance?”  “Where do you suppose the Admissions Office is?”  “Are we permitted to park here?”

Frequently, signage is limited to signs on the buildings themselves, without signs indicating how to find the buildings. I know, I know, pick up a map in the Admissions Office, but which way to the Admissions Office??? No, helping our guests ”˜find their way’ is not merely a nicety, it is a business necessity.

Just recently I was on one of the more beautiful and beautifully conceived university campuses in the country, the University of Colorado at Boulder. It would be difficult to be critical of either the wisdom of planning or the accumulated design decisions that have impacted this campus. But still, I was lost. The building I was looking for was not immediately apparent and there was no signage readily available to guide me. While each building was clearly labeled, the challenge was finding the building in the first place. I know, I know, pick up a map at”¦”¦.   Since I was visiting over the weekend, the campus was relatively quiet and I simply wandered around until I could find someone to assist me. No harm. It wasn’t raining all that hard and I knew my clothes would dry out while sitting in the concert hall.

These are not earth shaking problems by any means. But for colleges that pride themselves on personal attention and care, as well as a spirit of hospitality, again, it is not good for business.

Wayfinding is, at once, a practical matter and, believe it or not, an aesthetic matter. Clearly, the primary purpose of strong, visible campus entries, well placed signage and intelligently conceived walkways and parking is to welcome people to campus and get them where they need to go. On this count alone, many campuses fail miserably. I can’t tell you how many times, once on a campus, I’ve stood looking at a large campus map that has stood in the sun so long all the details had faded beyond recognition.

We shouldn’t underestimate the aesthetic character of the signage that is chosen to assist our guests, either. Campuses are not industrial steel plants. They are homes and should reflect the ethos of a home in all they do. When possible, signage should be on a human scale in height and size. Faded, large stop signs are not needed when signs half the size will do.

Painting hundreds of yards of ”˜no parking’ curbs bright industrial yellow is not necessary when low scale signage will serve the purpose. When I arrived at Birmingham-Southern College this was one of the first ”˜small’ things we could address. All over-scale stop signs were replaced with smaller, friendlier signage. Hundreds of yards of tired, chipped yellow curbs were sandblasted and right-sized, European-style signs bearing the college’s logo and colors were installed. At a relatively low cost, we had begun to alter the campus’ aesthetic.

In short, wayfinding is about helping our guests and our customers find their way, while feeling good about where they are. It is both an issue of hospitality and good business.

to be continued

In the corner of a beautiful garden stands a bronze statue of a diminutive Greek figure clad in a kitchen apron. The expression on his face is warm and inviting. No rearing horse, no sword drawn in anticipation of an impending charge, nothing that signals either great achievement or noble purpose. Simply a man with a smile. Who was this common figure? At Lebanon Valley College, alums, students, and faculty can tell you in a heartbeat. His name was ”˜Hot Dog’ Frank and he was beloved.


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the music of the night

As the sun sets on your campus, opportunities emerge. During the daylight hours, your campus shines with the play of sun and shadow to call attention to the architecture, gardens, and walkways.   In the night, an entirely new aesthetic palette presents itself.   Choices can be made that allow us to see special places in an entirely new light.

When at the Art Institute of Chicago, we occasionally would choose to exhibit a significant art work in a non-traditional manner to provide an altogether different experience of a piece people had grown familiar with and had viewed on many previous occasions.   For example, we exhibited Georges Seurat’s  A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/27992) by itself in a gallery painted entirely black. With the only lighting directed on the painting, the effect was extraordinary, revealing dimensions of the painting never seen before.


From early experiments, I grew to appreciate the possibilities that the combination of night skies and lighting present on the larger scale of a campus’ canvas.   Two cases in point illustrate beautifully what emerges in the night that simply remains unseen in the light of day.

When Lebanon Valley College faced the challenge of connecting portions of its campus that were divided by a highway, there were only two solutions ”“ either tunnel beneath the road or construct a pedestrian bridge.   Clearly, the bridge offered the best aesthetic opportunity.   I had no desire to bury hundreds of thousands of dollars underground.   Instead, I envisioned a bridge that would also be a work of art and a local icon.   Multiple and playful colors were chosen to accompany a playful design. And at night, it would be the perfect canvas for an amazing lighting opportunity.

baseball outfield with bridge

While more than interesting in the day time, the lighting effects create a dramatic and memorable evening experience for campus guests, an asset when prospective students are trying to remember which campuses are which after touring so many institutions.

07-01 BRIDGE AT NIGHT-72dpi

As we all know, campus life has its own clock. Often, life is just beginning as the sun goes down.   Taking advantage of locations throughout the campus with welcoming and aesthetically powerful lighting, in effect, expands the useful size of the campus for the student body versus confining activity to a smaller footprint at night.

At Birmingham-Southern College a significant portion of the campus was unattractive and unkept .   Left on their own, acres had become overtaken by cattle paths, weeds, and broken asphalt walks, avoided during the day and definitely off-limits in the night – a wasted opportunity and a scar on the admissions tour.


With the creation of a new Urban Environmental Studies program, this same site was a perfect location for an on-campus environmental lab demonstrating the state-of-the-art natural filtering of campus run-off.   It also created an evening venue for students and guests.   With beautifully lit walkways, bridges, and fountains serving as a backdrop to a stunning amphitheatre, this environmental park utilizes the best that night lighting offers to create a truly unique and treasured place on BSC’s campus.

are you paving your road with good intentions?

For better or worse, every campus has existing hardscape elements.   The surface materials of buildings; the wood, stone or brickwork of retaining walls; the textures, colors, and materials of walkways and roadways; the borders of gardens; the treatment of the immutable parking lots ”“ all combine to make up a hardscape palette.  Significant creative opportunities can be found in a thorough examination of these design elements of campus hardscape in an effort to determine whether they are working in concert to create a powerful overriding aesthetic or whether their message is one of random cacophony.  As Presidents, we would never allow each of our college’s letterhead, envelopes, business cards, and various publications to have an individual and unique aesthetic. How much more important is it that the entire campus have such an harmonic vision?

It is far too easy to become comfortable with our surroundings and not see what is immediately before us.   By becoming attuned to the materials and colors that comprise your campus’ palette, important existing aesthetic strengths can be reinforced while at the same time creating a stronger and more coherent campus presentation.

Every campus contains the seeds of its own unique ethos and beauty.   For example,  during my first visit to Mt. Holyoke College, I was struck by how the red  brick and brown stone presented such a coherent and consistent image. It clearly was defining the campus’ future development, while at the same time embodying the college’s rich traditions.   The University of Colorado in Boulder, with its rural Italian roots, is an architecturally eclectic campus unified by its beautiful palette of yellow, red, and brown sandstone, Tuscan tile, and exterior spaces defined by ivy and heavy shrubbery.   Again, though eclectic with its many periods of architecture, this Colorado aesthetic hardscape palette is consciously and religiously kept in mind as the campus continues in its development.

Attention to a campus’ hardscape offers significant opportunities to address some of the most conspicuously challenged areas of a campus, as well.   Parking lots, broken and cracked sidewalks, randomly scattered out-buildings, dumpster alcoves and the necessary places of service and maintenance, need not be the eyesores campus’ have come to accept.   When I first became President at Lebanon Valley College, they had already begun addressing precisely these kinds of problems.   These initial efforts led to fundamental change in the overall look and feel of the campus that continued throughout my years there.  Most importantly, they set the tone and direction for what ultimately became a radical transformation of the entire campus beyond everyone’s initial expectations.   The awareness of the importance of the exterior campus’ hardscape palette led the entire community to an appreciation of the importance of the campus’ role in LVC’s overall success.   Enrollment and retention improved and the morale of the entire community was elevated.

While all this begins with campus leadership having a good set of eyes, the development of a strong hardscape palette with a unifying aesthetic must ultimately take the form of a well understood set of campus design expectations and standards.   Small, self-contained design projects will crop up like weeds if unchecked.   With the best of intentions, everyone thinks they have good taste.   That being said, it is understood that not everyone’s taste can live simultaneously in the same place at the same time, to paraphrase an important law of aesthetic physics.

When a clear vision for a campus’ hardscape is joined with a strong overall plan for campus development, aesthetic continuity and coherence are reinforced and can have a true impact.

Time for some self-evaluation. Take a walk around your campus and look at your hardscape ”“ the patios, the walkways, the curbs, the walls, and even the parking lots. Now ask yourself, do these elements mesh with one another and are these elements reflective of my desired image and identity for my campus?

places of the heart

At the heart of the college experience are the friendships of our students’ lives. Late night conversations and laughter in the residence halls, seemingly endless cups of coffee in the ”˜caf,’walks through the campus gardens, along ponds and streams, cheering at an athletic event, or simply sunning with a friend on a lawn with a book at hand. These are the moments that grow into the relationships that last a lifetime. And the day-to-day places of the campus, where students gather together in leisure, become places of the heart.

The difference between a collection of buildings and an effective collegiate campus is the difference between a house and home. A house is the necessary occasion and condition for the creation of a home and nothing more. A house possesses no life, no stories and no soul. A home, on the other hand, is rich with the warmth of those who live within. Their history hangs on the walls and sits on the shelves.   Music and color fills the rooms, revealing who the family is and what they love. Individual spaces reflect what is most important to those who reside within.   Where and how they gather reveals where they’ve been and where they hope to go.   A home is the place of the heart.

Likewise, a college campus is intended to be a home and a formative place in the hearts and lives of each of its students. As such, the places that comprise the campus are critical to each student’s psychological and aesthetic well-being and education. A space that is thoughtlessly furnished with stiff furniture, drab colors, and accessories that signify neither conscious choices nor personal care neither enlivens nor inspires. Such spaces are emotionally, aesthetically, and psychologically negative and ignore  the formative character and power of place.

Successful campuses are rich with places that make their students feel at home, places that bring them together outside of the classrooms, labs, and the privacy of their rooms.  Spaces such as the highly successful Peace Garden of Lebanon Valley College, set in the center of the residential quad, is seen by the student body as a place that belongs to them in a personal way.  I recall when two students, during a night of thoughtless mischief, damaged the Peace Garden’s beautiful gated entry.  When the student judiciary system judged these students to be guilty of violating their garden, feelings were so strong and personal that the judiciary board had to be restrained from imposing truly excessive sanctions on the culprits.


When Birmingham-Southern College introduced its program in Urban and Environmental Studies, it created an extraordinary environmental laboratory where students would be able to conduct outdoor classes and research in the field right on campus.   Designed to address the challenges of urban run-off and demonstrate the effective use of natural filtration systems through the use of plant materials within rain gardens, a stunningly beautiful lake-park became a hallmark of the campus.   Furthermore, its powerful aesthetic presence serves not only as a place for study and student leisure, but also graduations, receptions, and the many requests for weddings by college’s alumni.   Functional, academic, aesthetic – the Urban Environmental Park holds a dear place in the hearts of the students, alumni, and faculty.


Such is the relationship that students have with their special places on campus, the places where they meet to learn and discuss the events of their days, as well as their aspirations for the days to come.  Such places create the occasions where friendships are nurtured and reinforced and where ties to the college are forged daily.   And be assured, they are remembered and spoken of fondly for decades to come. These are a college’s places of the heart.

imposing order on chaos

GDP-photo-webThere it stands ”“ right on your campus. That one building that is just in the absolute wrong place. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time, but no one seems to remember why.

Or  those broken and cracked asphalt service drives that crisscross the campus, scarring the beauty of the pedestrian landscape. The priorities are clear, namely, ease of access for every service vehicle imaginable, from plumbing to garbage collection.

Or maybe it’s  those ugly parking lots that must adjoin every faculty office building and student residence? So much for the campus’ wellness program and green initiative.

These are just a few of the architectural and human planning challenges every campus inherits and, alas, dynamite is not an acceptable design solution. Read more

presidential perspective and a presidential welcome

Working in higher education, we have been fortunate to get to know many college and university presidents and truly value their unique perspective. From time to time, their words of wisdom will be shared here.

One of the presidents we have gotten to know over the years is now part of our team as we have recently welcomed Dr. G. David Pollick to our firm. Read more